Tuesday, December 26, 2006

African Union Will Meet Soon on Somali/Ethiopian Conflict, Official Says; Fighting Escalates

Ethiopia action in Somalia backed

The African Union says Ethiopia has the right to intervene militarily in Somalia as it feels threatened by an Islamic militia operating there.

An official also admitted the African Union had failed to "react properly and adequately" to the Somali situation.

Ethiopian jets bombed two airports in Somalia on Monday in support of the transitional government's battle against the Union of Islamic Courts.

Ethiopia's prime minister has said his country is "at war" with the Islamists.

Fighting had flared last week between the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), which holds most of central and southern Somalia, and Somali government forces, based around the southern town of Baidoa.

Ethiopia admitted for the first time on Sunday its troops were fighting in the country.

The UN estimates at least 8,000 Ethiopian troops may be supporting the transitional government.

Stabilisation force

Patrick Mazimhaka, the deputy chairman of the AU's Commission, told the BBC the African Union would not criticise Ethiopia as it had "given us ample warning that it feels threatened by the UIC".

He added: "It is up to every country to judge the measure of the threat to its own sovereignty."

Mr Mazimhaka said the international community had a responsibility to support the transitional government.

The African Union would meet in two days to discuss the situation, he said.

"The African Union must plan to get a force to intercede and stabilise the situation," Mr Mazimhaka said.

On Monday, Ethiopian jets bombed the international airport in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, and another at Balidogle, in the south of the country.

Two senior leaders of the UIC, Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys and Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, landed at Mogadishu shortly after the air strike, a clear sign that the attack there did not disable the runway.

The Ethiopian government said it hit the two airports to stop "unauthorised flights", the AFP news agency reported.

A spokesman for the UIC, Abdirahman Janaqow, told the Associated Press the Islamists would stand firm against Ethiopia.

"We will overcome the Ethiopian troops in our land. Our forces are alert and ready to defend our country," he said.

The Islamist group has appealed for foreign fighters to join its troops in a "holy war" against Ethiopia.

Somali and Ethiopian troops also captured a checkpoint outside the flashpoint town of Beledweyne.

UIC forces then left the town, the scene of sustained fighting on Sunday.

There were also reports of heavy fighting at the central flashpoint of Burhakaba, close to Baidoa.

Red Cross plea

Ethiopia began attacking the UIC across a 400km (250 mile) front line along the border on Sunday.

PM Meles Zenawi said Ethiopia was forced to defend its sovereignty against "terrorists" and anti-Ethiopians.

"We are not trying to set up a government for Somalia, nor do we have an intention to meddle in Somalia internal affairs. We have only been forced by the circumstances," Mr Meles said.

"We want to end this war urgently and we hope that Ethiopian people stand by the defence forces."

The Red Cross has urged all parties to protect civilians from harm.

Thousands of Somalis have fled the escalating violence, and the Red Cross says the fighting is straining an already weak support system in the country.

Red Cross official Pedram Yazdi told the BBC that the organisation was treating 445 people injured during the fighting, including combatants and civilians.

Aircraft are taking some two tonnes of supplies into Somalia from Kenya each day in an effort to keep hospitals adequately supplied, he said.

Are you or anyone you know near conflict zone? Please send us your experiences and contact details using the post form below.

Story from BBC NEWS:
Published: 2006/12/26 01:35:24 GMT

Ethiopia Steps Up Attacks on Somalia
Planes Strike Airport; Refugees Flee to Kenya

By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, December 26, 2006; A01

LONDON, Dec. 25 -- Ethiopian warplanes attacked the airport in Somalia's capital, Mogadishu, on Monday in another major escalation of fighting between the Ethiopian-backed Somali government and the Islamic Courts movement that in recent months has taken over much of the country.

In Mogadishu, businesses shut down and thousands of enraged Somalis loyal to the Islamic movement rallied in the streets, once again proclaiming holy war against Ethiopia, a bitter enemy that is widely perceived to be supported by the U.S. government. Witnesses said young Somali men who have grown up in a country awash with AK-47 assault rifles continued to pour into recruiting centers to sign up to fight.

And 150 miles away on the front lines near Baidoa, seat of the fragile interim government, sources said that fighters from Eritrea and Pakistan, among others, had joined the Islamic movement's battle against Ethiopia in a conflict that analysts fear could engulf the Horn of Africa.

"The feelings are very bad, very confusing -- everywhere, it's confusing," said a businessman in Mogadishu who did not want to be identified. "I didn't expect this scale of war, but most Somalis, even if they were fighting each other before on a clan basis, they are united now against Ethiopia. And there's a feeling that the international community is not helping."

Thousands of Somalis who had fled war and drought earlier this year and epic flooding in recent weeks once again abandoned villages, leaving behind fields and livestock at harvest time, aid workers said. Droves of villagers trudged down muddy roads toward refugee camps just across the Kenyan border. The camps are already full of Somalis displaced by years of fighting and natural disasters.

"These families are really pushed into the extreme limits," Pedram Yazdi, a spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, said from Nairobi, adding that Red Cross-supported medical facilities had received more than 440 wounded and that the total "is rising every hour." Aid workers believe the number of dead is in the hundreds.

Meanwhile, Ethiopian officials said on state-run television Monday that they would continue the assault against the Islamic movement and vowed to push toward Mogadishu, clearing the Islamic fighters out of every town they control over the next five days. By Monday night, Ethiopian forces, which are vastly superior to the Islamic movement in conventional military terms, had secured the strategically important town of Beledweyne, which is near the Ethiopian border and along a main road to Mogadishu. The Associated Press reported that Ethiopian and government forces had also captured three villages in a push toward Jowhar, about 60 miles north of Mogadishu.

AP also reported that airstrikes hit a second airport, Baledogle Airport, outside Mogadishu.

Negotiations between Somalia's weak but internationally recognized interim government and the Islamic movement have fallen apart in recent months as the Islamic group has become stronger and advanced its control. The current conflict began even as the two sides had signed an agreement to de-escalate fighting and resume talks.

Analysts believe that Ethiopia's offensive is intended to force the movement back into negotiations by changing the situation on the ground.

But some analysts have expressed fear that Ethiopia's military calculation is seriously flawed, and that even if its superior military initially routs the Islamic movement, the ideologically driven militias will become only more motivated to pursue a guerrilla-style war or terrorist attacks across the region.

Ethiopia, which has fought two wars with Somalia in the past 45 years, is perceived as a historically Christian nation, though Muslims now make up nearly half its population.

"Hasn't anyone heard of Iraq?" said John Prendergast, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group in Washington. "A military strategy of 'countering terrorism' never works and will likely blow up in their faces."

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has maintained, however, that this is a war of self-defense and that dialogue has only bought the Islamic movement time to expand its control. He has repeatedly accused the Islamic movement of supporting secessionist Somali groups inside Ethiopia, and, along with the United States, has accused the movement of harboring terrorists, an allegation it has denied.

Though the United States has remained on the sidelines as the situation has deteriorated, Meles has said he has support for a defensive war from the United States, which fears that Somalia, a country without a central government since 1991, could become a new base for terrorist groups.

Opposition groups inside Ethiopia say that Meles, an increasingly authoritarian leader, has shrewdly played up the terrorism charges to win U.S. support. Based in part on intelligence out of Ethiopia, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Jendayi E. Frazer has asserted that the Islamic movement is now under the control of an al-Qaeda cell, a claim that regional analysts believe is exaggerated.

Although some analysts believe al-Qaeda may exert influence over some military and political leaders within the Islamic movement, they caution that the leadership is very large and complex and that claims that any one person or group is in control is a misunderstanding of the movement.

Somalia has historically been of strategic importance to the United States because of its proximity to the Middle East and Red Sea shipping lanes. But U.S. policy there has been sharply criticized over the years.

A U.S.-led attempt to stabilize the country led to the deaths of 18 American troops in October 1993 in an incident depicted in a popular book and film, "Black Hawk Down." And more recently, the United States financed warlords in Somalia who described themselves as an "anti-terrorism coalition" but who mostly terrorized local Somalis, who came to despise them.

The Islamic Courts, initially a grouping of local clerics, came to power in that context, establishing order based on Islamic law village by village, and winning the support of businessmen and others who found the transitional government ineffective and the warlords unacceptable. Analysts say it is a measure of beleaguered Somalis' desire for order, rather than a tendency toward religious extremism, that they embraced the movement.

The movement is well financed, receiving money from the Somali diaspora and countries such as Eritrea, Yemen and others, according to a recent U.N. report.

Though the movement includes moderate leaders, it is backed by a militant core of young fighters called shebab, who have been indoctrinated with the ideology of holy war and whose leaders, analysts say, seem to have become more influential in recent months.

Analysts said the current crisis stems from another failure of U.S. policy in an increasingly vulnerable region. "All this could have been averted," Prendergast said. "If the U.S. joined a serious diplomatic effort aimed at finding a compromise between Ethiopia and the Courts, negotiations could have had a much better chance. Once the serious punching has started, it's going to be increasingly difficult to stop this brawl."

No comments: