Saturday, December 23, 2006

Third Day of Fighting in Somalia Marks Escalation by Ethiopian Forces

December 23, 2006

In the Third Day of Fighting in Somalia, Worries of a Sharp Escalation by Ethiopian Forces


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.


Vigilante said...

An open and shut case of cold-blooded international aggression with the blessing of John Bolton.

Pan-African News Wire said...

Ethiopia Launches Airstrikes in Somalia

Ethiopian fighter jets bombard several Somali towns controlled by Islamic militia

MOGADISHU, Somalia, Dec. 24, 2006
By MOHAMED OLAD HASSAN Associated Press Writer

Ethiopian fighter jets pounded several Somali towns held by a powerful Islamic militia, a sharp escalation in violence that threatens to engulf the volatile Horn of Africa in widespread violence.

Ethiopia confirmed the attacks, the first time it has acknowledged that its troops were fighting in Somalia, though witnesses have reported their presence for weeks.

The airstrikes hit the strategic town of Belet Weyne on the Ethiopian border and surrounding villages up to 12 miles away, said Sheik Mohamoud Ibrahim Suley, an official with Somalia's Council of Islamic Courts. A resident of Belet Weyne _ Ayanle Husein Abdi _ said the strikes hit a strategic road and a recruiting center.

Ethiopia said it was acting to defend itself.

"After too much patience, the Ethiopian government has taken a self-defensive measure and has begun counterattacking the aggressive extremist forces," said Solomon Abebe, Ethiopia's foreign affairs spokesman.

Abdi said that the planes hit an Islamic center where the Islamic officials in the region enrolled volunteers who wanted to join the war. Another witness, Said Abukar Sahal, said the strikes were targeting the roads and defenses of the Islamic militia.

The Council of Islamic Courts has vowed to drive out troops from neighboring Ethiopia, a largely Christian nation that is providing military support to Somalia's U.N.-backed government.

Somalia has not had an effective government since warlords overthrew longtime dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991, plunging the country into chaos. The Islamic courts have steadily gained power since June, raising concerns about an emerging Taliban-style regime. The U.S. accuses the group of having ties to al-Qaida, which it denies.

Somalia's government spokesman, Abdirahman Dinari, said from Baidoa that his forces have "inflicted massive casualties," although the claim could not be independently confirmed.

Last week, officials from the Somali government and the Islamic union said days of fighting killed hundreds of people.

The Ethiopian airstrikes on Sunday were the first against Somalia's Islamic movement. Ethiopia and Somalia have fought two wars over their disputed border in the last 45 years. Islamic court leaders have repeatedly said they want to incorporate ethnic Somalis living in eastern Ethiopia, northeastern Kenya and Djibouti into a Greater Somalia.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has said his government has a legal and moral obligation to support and defend Somalia's internationally recognized government. He has repeatedly accused the Islamic courts of backing ethnic Somali rebels fighting for independence from Ethiopia and has called such support an act of war.

As Sunday's fighting wore on, the Islamic leadership in the capital, Mogadishu, began broadcasting patriotic songs about Somalia's 1977 war with Ethiopia. Although the two countries view each other as enemies, Somali President Abdullahi Yusuf is a longtime ally of Ethiopia.

The militants, who want to govern Somalia according to Islamic law, invited foreign Muslims on Saturday to join their holy war against Ethiopian troops. Many fear the fighting could escalate into a regional battle.

"Muslims are brothers and help each other," said Sheik Yusuf Indahaadde, national security chairman for the Council of Islamic Courts. "We have a right to call our brothers and sisters to help us in this holy war."

The clashes could mean a major conflict in the Horn of Africa. Ethiopia, which has one of the largest armies in the region, and its bitter rival, Eritrea, could use Somalia as the ground for a proxy war. Eritrea backs the Islamists.

In Kismayo, a strategic seaport captured by Islamic militia in September, residents saw several foreign Arab fighters disembarking from ships this week.

Somali Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi vowed Saturday that his government will "defend the people it is responsible for and Somali sovereignty" and said the Islamic fighters should return to negotiations. Several rounds of talks, mediated by the Arab League, have failed to produce any lasting effect.

Thousands of Somalis have fled their homes as troops loyal to the two-year-old interim administration fought Islamic fighters who had advanced on Baidoa, about 140 miles northwest of Mogadishu. Islamic militiamen control Mogadishu along with most of southern Somalia.

Government officials said more than 600 Islamic fighters had been killed during four days of clashes. Islamic militiamen said they killed around 400 Ethiopians and government fighters. Neither claim could be independently confirmed.

Associated Press writers Salad Duhul and Mohamed Sheik Nor contributed to this report.