Monday, December 25, 2006

Somalia War Update: Ethiopian Military Pushes Deeper; Airfields Bombed Amid Additional Threats

15:39 MECCA TIME, 12:39 GMT

Ethiopia pushes deeper into Somalia

Thousands of Ethiopian troops, backed by aircraft, artillery and tanks, have escalated a military offensive against fighters from the Islamic Courts Union.

The Ethiopians, backing fighters loyal to Somalia's internationally recognised - but largely powerless - interim government, captured the town of Baladweyne on Monday.

They also bombed airports to prevent the courts from rearming and moved further into courts-held territory.

Yusuf Dabo Geed, a Somali government officer, said: "We have taken control of Baladweyne and our forces are chasing the terrorists.

"We have killed more than 60 Islamists, wounded others and captured some as prisoners of war."

Baladweyne is 100km north of Baidoa, seat of the transitional government.

The offensive came after thousands of Ethiopian soldiers prevented the Islamist Courts Union from surrounding and capturing Baidoa, the only major city under government control.

Following their defeat in Baladweyne, leaders of the Islamic courts called on the Ethiopian troops to withdraw.

Sheikh Mohamed Ibrahim Bilal, a senior Islamic commander, said: "We call on the international community to act soon about this violation."

Both sides have reported killing hundreds of their opponents in the recent fighting, but the claims could not be independently confirmed.

Ethiopia bombs airports

Baidoa is the only major town controlled by Somlia's interim government

Also on Monday, Ethiopian fighter jets bombed the airports of Mogadishu, the Islamist-held capital, and Baledogle, Somalia's largest military airfield 100km to the west.

Ibrahim Hassan Adow, the foreign secretary of the Islamic Courts Union, told Al Jazeera that the bombing of Mogadishu by Ethiopian MiG aircraft injured two people, one of whom was a cleaner.

"Ethiopian attacks against Somalia have no limits. It seems the entire world is silent about it."

Ethiopia said it bombed the airport in order to halt the supply of arms to the courts.

Solomon Abede, the Ethiopian foreign ministry spokesman, said: "It was attacked because illegal flights were attempting to land there.

"It was also reported that some of the extremists were waiting for an airlift out of Mogadishu."

In November, a UN arms-monitoring group reported that flights originating in Eritrea, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Djibouti and Syria landed in Mogadishu and Baledogle.

The UN and the Somali government said that many of the flights carried arms and military supplies for the Islamic Courts. The US has also been accused of funding and arming those fighting for the government.

Border closed

The Somali government said that it was closing the country's borders.

This is little more than a symbolic measures as the government controls little more than the town of Baidoa while the country's long borders are largely unmarked.

However, aid agencies said they feared that the measure would hamper their attempts to send food and medical supplies into the poverty-stricken country.

The UN World Food Programme airlifted more than 14 tons of food into Somalia on Monday, but had not yet been notified of any border closures, Peter Smerdon, an agency spokesman, said.

Ethiopian fighter jets hit Somali airports

Guled Mohamed
Mogadishu, Somalia
25 December 2006 12:26

Ethiopian warplanes attacked two Islamist-held airfields in Somalia on Monday, witnesses said, wounding at least one person and further escalating a conflict that threatens to engulf the Horn of Africa in war.

The attacks came the morning after Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi formally declared war on the Islamists, saying he was protecting his nation's sovereignty against a movement Addis Ababa accuses of being run by terrorists.

A MiG fighter struck Mogadishu International Airport with machine-gun fire, injuring a cleaning lady, said the airport's MD, Abdirahim Adan. He said reports a bomb had fallen were wrong.

Three MiGs later attacked Somalia's biggest military airfield, Baledogle, about 100km west of Mogadishu. "They are targeting the runway and I can see it being hit," said an Islamist fighter who asked not to be named.

A week of fighting between Islamists and Somalia's Ethiopian-backed government has intensified long-running hostilities. Addis Ababa and the United States say the Islamists, who control most of southern Somalia after seizing Mogadishu in June, is a terrorist group backed by Ethiopia's enemy, Eritrea.

Ethiopia has vowed to protect the Western-backed interim government, which is virtually encircled by Islamist fighters in its south-central provincial base of Baidoa.

Fighting continued for the seventh day on Monday near Daynunay, outside Baidoa, between fighters loyal to the Somalia Islamic Courts Council (SICC) and government troops backed by Ethiopian tanks, artillery and air strikes.

In Baidoa, the virtually powerless interim government said it was closing all of Somalia's land, sea and air borders. Government spokesperson Abdirahman Dinari said the administration approved of Ethiopia's attack on the airport. "Anywhere terrorists use to bring in arms and ammunition deserves to be hit," he said.

Ethiopians take town

The interim government's Prime Minister, Ali Mohamed Gedi, said 8 000 foreign fighters had poured into Somalia to back the Islamists. He concurred with a recent US accusation the Islamists' top echelon was being controlled by al-Qaeda.

The Islamists accused Ethiopia of targeting civilians. "The airport is used mainly by civilian flights," said Abdi Kafi, a senior SICC official. "This latest attack has come at time when so many people are travelling to attend hajj. It is a shocking attack."

There was no immediate word from Addis Ababa.

Residents of Baladwayne town, north of Baidoa, said Ethiopian troops had taken control on Monday after aerial bombing raids on Sunday to drive out the Islamists. "We heard gunfire on the north side of town," one local, Abdi Nur, said by telephone. "Then they got closer. I saw Ethiopian tanks going down the road."

Local businessman Hassan Ahmed said the shooting had stopped around Baladwayne early on Monday and that the Islamists appeared to be regrouping in hills to the east, he said.

Both sides say they have killed hundreds of opponents, although there has been no independent verification. Somalia's ambassador to Ethiopia said government forces had killed 500 Islamist troops, most of them Eritreans.

The Islamists claim broad popular support and say their main aim is to restore order to Somalia after years of anarchy.

Addis Ababa, which has intervened in the past to attack Islamic radicals in Somalia, fears a hard-line Muslim state on its doorstep and specifically accuses the SICC of wanting to annex Ethiopia's ethnically Somali Ogaden region.

United Nations experts said recently 10 different countries were illegally arming both sides. -- Reuters

Additional reporting by Sahal Abdulle in Mogadishu and Daniel Wallis in Nairobi

Monday December 25, 11:20 PM

Ethiopia to use 'any appropriate means' against Somali Islamists

Ethiopia's government has vowed to use "any appropriate means" against Somalia's Islamist movement as deadly fighting raged on several fronts in the lawless African nation.

Hours after Ethiopian warplanes bombed two Islamic-held airports in Somalia Monday, the information ministry said Addis Ababa would take tough action in its war against the Islamists who attacked the country's Ethiopia-backed government last week.

"We have made it clear that we are going to use any appropriate means to destabilise the anti-Ethiopian forces in Somalia," the ministry's spokesman Zemedkum Tekle told AFP.

The Islamists, who took control of the capital Mogadishu in June and have since extended their rule over much of south and central Somalia, declared a holy war against Ethiopian forces backing the weak Somali government, which holds only one major town, Baidoa.

When Addis Ababa acknowledged direct military involvement in the conflict on Sunday, the fifth day of heavy fighting, the government said it was acting in self-defence against insurgency attempts and to protect its own sovereignty.

"We are going to take so many measures on the ground to help our programme. We do have the right to act on the ground with any means as we like to achieve our goals," Zemedkum added.

Ethiopian warplanes bombed the Islamist-held Mogadishu airport early Monday, injuring one person, and also targetted Baledogle airport north of the capital on the second day of air assault against the Islamist positions.

The aim of the raids was apparently to deny supplies to the Islamists by air, while Somalia's government also ordered the closure of land and sea borders, though being powerless to enforce this.

Witnesses said the rival sides continued pounding each other with heavy artillery on several fronts on the sixth straight day, compounding the misery of people already affected by recent flooding.

"The defensive measures we are forced to take will be limited and proportional to the attacks launched against us and the dangers facing our country, as well as in line with international laws," Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said in a national address Sunday.

"Ethiopia's defensive measures are targeted only at this terrorist group," he added, referring to the Islamists, some of whom allegedly have links with the Al-Qaeda network.

US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Fraser claimed in mid-December that Somalia's Union of Islamic Courts "is now controlled by Al-Qaeda cell individuals," notably mentioning Hassan Aweys, leader of the movement's governing Shura Council.

"The top layer of the courts are extremists to the core, they are terrorists and they are creating this logic of war," Fraser told reporters on December 14. Ethiopia's authorities also refer to the "terrorists" and the country has since 2002 benefitted from a US military assistance programme, particularly in anti-terrorism.

Heavy fighting began in Somalia on December 20 after the expiry of an ultimatum by the Islamists for Ethiopia to pull out its troops, heightening fears of a conflict that could draw in Ethiopia's foe, Eritrea.

The exact death toll remained unclear, but both sides claimed to have killed hundreds of their rivals.

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