Somalia's Council of Islamic Courts holds demonstration against Ethiopian intervention. There have been fierce clashes with Ethiopian forces over the last several days.
Originally uploaded by Pan-African News Wire Photo File.
In the Third Day of Fighting in Somalia, Worries of a Sharp Escalation by Ethiopian Forces
By JEFFREY GETTLEMAN
ZANZIBAR, Tanzania, Dec. 22 — Any hope of a quick peace in Somalia vanished in a burst of artillery shells on Friday, as fighting between rival forces raged for a third straight day.
Residents of Baidoa, the seat of the internationally recognized transitional government, said they saw columns of Ethiopian tanks chugging toward the front lines, heightening worries that Somalia’s internal problems could soon become regional ones. Meanwhile, residents in Mogadishu, the battle-scarred traditional capital and the base of Somalia’s powerful Islamist movement, said they saw sailboats packed with foreign mercenaries landing on the city’s beaches.
According to United Nations officials, the transitional government, with the help of thousands of Ethiopian troops, has inflicted heavy losses on the Islamists, who rely on teenage boys to do much of their fighting. On Friday, the fighting was concentrated in towns ringing Baidoa, where witnesses said bodies were piling up in the streets.
As the two sides continued to blast each other with machine guns and artillery, an exodus began, with thousands of residents from the battle zone squeezing into aged trucks with pots, pans and sacks of clothes and fleeing to safer areas.
Ethiopia has acknowledged that it has dispatched several hundred military advisers to help the transitional government repel the Islamists. But on Friday, Ethiopian officials continued to deny that their troops were engaged in combat.
“Tanks? What tanks?” said Zemedkun Tekle, spokesman for Ethiopia’s Information Ministry. “We have not sent any heavy arms into Somalia. Such talk is just propaganda to stir up the people.”
The realities of waging war in a desperately poor country are setting in. At a hospital in Burhakaba, a town near Baidoa, a doctor stood in a filthy waiting room crowded with wounded and listed all the things he did not have: “No X-ray machines, no operating tables, no nothing.”
Islamist leaders have tried to frame the escalating conflict as a nationalist struggle, one aimed at evicting Ethiopian troops, whom they call infidel invaders. While Somalia is almost purely Muslim, neighboring Ethiopia has a strong Christian identity, even though it is actually about half Muslim. The two countries are longtime rivals and have fought over contested border areas before.
All schools in the Islamist-controlled areas have been closed indefinitely so more young people can be funneled to the front. On Friday, recruitment centers were swarming with teenage boys begging for guns. In Mogadishu, mosques blared out a call for retired soldiers to lend their expertise to the new jihad.
Ethiopia’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement late on Friday warning the Islamists to end their “hostile anti-Ethiopian activities.”
“The situation in Somalia has turned from bad to worse,” the statement said. “Ethiopia has been patient so far. There is a limit to this.”
Ethiopia has the most powerful military in the region, and many analysts fear that Ethiopia may be only days away from unleashing its helicopter gunships and jet fighters.
Somalia has been mired in crisis since 1991, when the central government collapsed, setting off a long, nasty interclan war. While the United Nations and donor countries have struggled to get a new government on its feet, a grass-roots movement of Islamic courts has steadily gained power.
The Islamist movement defeated the last of Mogadishu’s warlords in June and immediately restored a sense of law and order unheard of in the capital for 15 years. Then the Islamists began pushing outward, eventually reaching the outskirts of Baidoa, which their troops are now attacking from two sides.
The transitional government, meanwhile, has never been popular and its leaders spend much of their time outside Somalia. American officials have said that if it were not for Ethiopian protection, the transitional government would have fallen months ago.
The fighting began near Baidoa on Wednesday, as European diplomats were meeting with leaders from both sides in an effort to strike a peace deal. The diplomats were initially upbeat. But as the fighting has intensified, the diplomats have become more pessimistic, saying that the rank-and-file Islamists seem bent on war even if their leaders are conciliatory.
Mohammed Ibrahim contributed reporting from Mogadishu, and Abukar Karyare from Baidoa.