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Sunday, December 24, 2006

Ethiopian Warplanes Attack Somalia - New York Times

Ethiopian Warplanes Attack Somalia - New York Times:
December 24, 2006

Ethiopian Warplanes Attack Somalia

ZANZIBAR, Tanzania, Dec. 24 — Ethiopia sent its warplanes to bomb Somalia today, openly escalating its conflict with Islamist fighters into a dreaded regional war.

According to witnesses, the warplanes bombarded several towns while Ethiopian tanks pushed aggressively into territory that had been controlled by Somalia’s Islamist forces. Ethiopia is backing Somalia’s transitional government, which has been losing control of parts of the country to the rival Islamist forces.

Until today, Ethiopian officials denied they had combat forces in Somalia, saying instead that their presence was limited to a few hundred military advisors. But witnesses had said Ethiopian troops were already in Somalia.

“Our defense force has been forced to enter a war,” Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said on television today, according to news reports. He said his country was defending itself against “attacks from extremists and anti-Ethiopian forces” and would “protect the sovereignty of the land.”

The Ethiopian offensive ignited fighting up and down the Somali coast.

“The Ethiopians are blowing things up all over the place,” said Mohammed Hussein Galgal, an Islamist commander in Beledweyne, near the Ethiopian border. “Civilians have been killed, people are fleeing. But don’t worry, we won’t be defeated.”

Ethiopian officials said today that they had run out of patience with the Islamist leaders, who have declared war on Ethiopia and vowed to turn Somalia into a recruiting ground for anti-Ethiopian fighters.

“What did you expect us to do?” said Zemedkun Tekle, a spokesman for Ethiopia’s information ministry. “Wait for them to attack our cities?”

Somalia has two rival governments — the weak, internationally recognized transitional government, marooned in the inland city of Baidoa, and the Islamist forces, a popular grassroots movement that controls much of the country, including the battle-scared seaside capital, Mogadishu.

Since the Islamists came to power in June, Ethiopia has been increasingly involved in internal Somali politics, trying to protect the transitional government from advances by the Islamist forces.

Heavy fighting erupted last week between the two sides, and witnesses said the teenage soldiers of the Islamists were no match for the more professional (and adult) forces of Ethiopia and the transitional government.

Ethiopia has the most powerful military in the region, trained by American advisors and funded by American aid. American officials have acknowledged that they tacitly supported Ethiopia’s decision to send troops to Somalia because they felt it was the best way to check the growing power of the Islamists, whom American officials have accused of sheltering Al Qaeda terrorists. .

Residents of Beledweyne, which is controlled by the Islamists, said Ethiopian bombers blew up an Islamist recruitment center, killing several civilians, and dropped bombs on Islamist troops hiding in the hills.

Though western diplomats had been urging Ethiopia to use restraint, Ethiopia’s attacks today did not come as a surprise. The question now seems to be if Ethiopia will go into Mogadishu and try to finish off the Islamist military, which many fear could spur a long and ugly insurgency, or simply deal them enough of a blow to force them back to the negotiating table with the transitional government. Ethiopia’s prime minister recently told American officials that he could wipe out the Islamists “ in one to two weeks.”

What complicates the issue is the presence of other foreign troops inside Somalia and the rising potential for Somalia’s neighbors to be dragged in. United Nations officials estimate that there are several thousand soldiers from Eritrea, Ethiopia’s arch-enemy, fighting for the Islamists, along with a growing number of Muslim mercenaries from Yemen, Egypt, Syria and Libya who want to turn Somalia into the third front of jihad, after Iraq and Afghanistan. On Friday, residents of Mogadishu said they saw boatloads of armed men landing on the city’s beaches.

Somalia and Ethiopia have had bad blood between them for years. Ethiopia has a long and storied Christian identity, while Somalia is almost purely Muslim. The two countries fought a costly war in 1977 and 1978, when Somali forces tried to reclaim a border area only to be routed by Ethiopian troops. Since then, Ethiopia has, on several occasions, teamed up with various clans in Somalia’s interclan wars. Those wars led to the collapse of the central government in 1991, followed by 15 years of anarchy.

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