Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Somali Islamists Have Fought Ethiopian Forces in the South of the Country

Wednesday November 22, 2:14 AM

Somali Islamists clash with Ethiopian forces in southern Somalia

Muslim fighters clashed with Ethiopian forces near the seat of Somalia's government, inflicting large numbers of casualties and destroying armoured vehicles, officials and witnesses said.

The Islamists, who have vowed holy war against Ethiopian troops protecting the weak government, ambushed an Ethiopian convoy in Qasah-Omane, a small village some 70 kilometres (45 miles) southwest of Baidoa, where both sides are girding for war.

As the Islamists claimed victory in the second attack against Ethiopians in three days, witnesses reported fresh fighting at another outpost south of Baidoa, about 250 kilometres (155 miles) northwest of the capital.

"Our local Mujahedeens ambushed three armoured vehicles, they blew up one and two others were also lightly damaged," said Sheikh Mukhtar Robow, the deputy security chief for the Supreme Islamic Council of Somalia.

"I can also confirm that soldiers who were on board also suffered casualties," he told AFP in the Islamist-held Mogadishu.

"These operations will continue until we totally defeat the forces of the devil who are in our territories," Robow explained.

In Adale, about 38 kilometres (24 miles) south of Baidoa, witnesses reported a heavy exchange of fire between the Islamists and Ethiopian forces, one of the few direct confrontations in the recent months.

"We don't know the casualties but we can confirm to you that fighting is raging," Osman Anteno, a resident, told AFP by phone.

Ethiopian officials were not immediately available for comment and the report could not be independently confirmed due to instability and poor communications in the area where the attack was said to have taken place.

In central Somalia, Muslim gunmen stormed Abudwaq town in Galgudud region, seizing it without clashes, an indication that the lawless nation is inching closer to a full-scale conflict.

"The Islamic courts supported by local militia have taken control of Abudwaq," said Mohamed Jumale Agoweyne, a regional Islamic spokesman.

Islamic leaders said residents are ready to expand the existing Sharia courts in the region, home to Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, the leader of the Supreme Islamic Council of Somalia.

"The people are ready to setup and expand existing Islamic courts. Who is crazy to fight the implementation of the laws of Allah?" said Sheikh Abdixafid Abdullahi.

The Islamists last month claimed to have drawn first blood in the jihad by attacking another Ethiopian convoy in the same area, killing two soldiers.

Ethiopia denies reports it has thousands of combat troops in Somalia but admits several hundred military advisers, trainers and support personnel have been sent to help the transitional government in Baidoa.

It has also made clear it will defend the internationally backed government and itself from attack by the Islamists, some of whom are accused of links with Al-Qaeda and have refused to attend peace talks until the Ethiopians withdraw.

Experts have warned that Somalia could become a battle ground for Ethiopia and Eritrea, which has been accused of deploying thousands of fighters to back the Islamists.

According to a recent report compiled by experts monitoring a 1992 UN arms embargo, the Somali situation contains "all of the ingredients for the increasing possibility of a violent, widespread, and protracted military conflict."

The Horn of Africa nation, home to 10 million people has lacked an effective government since the 1991 ouster of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre. The two-year-old government has failed to exert its control across the whole nation.

Apart from the conflict, recurrent famine, drought and floods have worsened suffering in the country.

Somali region to switch to Sharia

The leader of Somalia's autonomous region of Puntland has agreed to introduce Islamic law in the territory.

Mohamed Adde Muse said a committee would decide how best to implement Sharia to replace the current Western-based system of civil laws.

Correspondents say the move follows intense pressure from local Muslim and clan leaders.

Puntland has been far more stable than southern Somalia after running its own affairs since 1998.

Much of southern Somalia is now controlled by the Islamist Union of Islamic Courts (UIC).

Earlier this month, Puntland denied reports its forces had clashed with Islamist militias near the border.

Some Puntland leaders had threatened to join the UIC, correspondents say.

John Prendergast, a senior adviser with the International Crisis Group, think-tank said the decree was intended to avoid conflict with the UIC.

"Puntland authorities are trying to pre-empt the UIC's agenda before the UIC makes a major play to overtake the government there," he said.

Story from BBC NEWS:
Published: 2006/11/20 18:13:13 GMT

Threat of regional conflict over Somalia

By Paul Reynolds
World affairs correspondent, BBC News website

A UN report claiming that a number of African and Middle East countries are helping to arm Islamic militants trying to seize control of Somalia has raised fears that there could be a regional conflict over this failed state in the Horn of Africa.

The fear in particular is that Ethiopia and Eritrea will come into conflict because they support opposite sides and might see in Somalia another battleground in which to continue the intermittent war over their own border dispute.

The United States is keeping a close eye on the crisis from its base in neighbouring Djibouti. The Americans are worried that if the UIC takes over the whole country or the majority of it and hardliners take over the UIC, Somalia could offer the kind of training bases for al-Qaeda elements that were once provided by the Taleban in Afghanistan.

Ethiopia supports the Transitional Federal government, which has fallen back on the western town of Baidoa near the Ethiopian border. It appears determined not to countenance an Islamic state next door. Eritrea backs the Islamist Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), which has taken control of the capital Mogadishu and large parts of the south of the country.

UN report details

The UN report, by the Security Council-mandated Somalia Monitoring Group, paints a vivid picture of outside countries piling in with weapons in contravention of the arms embargo imposed on Somalia back in 1992.

It claims that Eritrea, Djibouti, Iran, Syria, Libya, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and even Hezbollah in Lebanon are providing arms and training for the UIC. Several of these governments have already denied doing so.

Iran is said to have sent three consignments this year, including 1,000 machine guns and 45 shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles. It is further claimed that Iran is interested in acquiring rights to uranium deposits in Somalia.

More than 700 Somali fighters are said to have gone to support and get training from Hezbollah.

Ethiopia, Yemen and Uganda are said to be supplying the transitional government.

Not everyone who follows Somalia believes everything the report says.

"The report should be taken seriously and it is clear that the arms embargo is not working, but the report is only as good as the information the monitors were given. One cannot be sure of the details," said Sally Healy, a Somalia watcher at Chatham House in London.

Wider picture

Nevertheless, the broad picture is a threatening one.

Talks between the Transitional Federal Institutions, which is how the UN now describes the weakened government authorities, and the UIC broke down in Khartoum recently, largely over UIC objections to the presence of Ethiopian troops around Baidoa.

"A war could suck in the whole region," said Sally Healy. "Ethiopia and Eritrea have their proxies and Eritrea is keen to get at Ethiopia because of the Ethiopian refusal to accept the ruling of the boundary commission on their border dispute. That is why the vigorously secular Eritreans support the Islamists of the UIC.

"The UIC tactics have been to negotiate surrenders with local clans and it is now nibbling at Puntland [a region of North East Somalia which has declared autonomy]. If Puntland defected to the UIC, the effect would be huge.

"But one should not assume that the UIC will be like the Taleban. Many Somali expatriates are putting pressure on it not do so. If it is treated as an extremist organisation it might become one. There needs to be engagement with it. Some good news is coming from Mogadishu and even the port has re-opened."

There is a power struggle within the UIC between hardline and more moderate elements.

A man who has been named by the United States as a terrorist suspect, Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, leads the hardliners.

But another leader, Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, is seen as more moderate and anxious to develop links with the US, the EU and others.

Amending the arms embargo?

There is currently a debate in the UN about whether to lift the embargo in favour of the transitional government, which is led by President Abdullahi Yusuf.

A plan drawn up by the regional organisation the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), which sponsored the process leading to the transitional government after years of warlordism, proposed a "peace support" operation.

This could not be carried out without arming the transitional government and that cannot be done openly without amending the arms embargo.

With peace talks stalled, the prospects are for more fighting and while that lasts, there remains the threat of outsiders playing bigger and bigger roles.

Story from BBC NEWS:
Published: 2006/11/16 14:34:24 GMT

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