Sunday, December 24, 2006

Ethiopia attacks Somalia

Ethiopia attacks Somalia Islamic council

By MOHAMED OLAD HASSAN, Associated Press Writer 22 minutes ago

Ethiopia launched an attack Sunday on Somalia's powerful Islamic movement, sending fighter jets across the border and bombarding several towns in a major escalation of the violence that threatens to engulf the Horn of Africa.

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.

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

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.

"They are cowards," said Sheik Mohamoud Ibrahim Suley, an official with Somalia's Council of Islamic Courts. "They are afraid of the face-to-face war and resorted to airstrikes. I hope God will help us shoot down their planes."

But Somali President Abdullahi Yusuf said his forces have gained the upper hand.

"I think they have met a resistance they have never dreamt of before," Yusuf said in brief remarks from Baidoa — the only town the government controls — as the battles began to die down Sunday afternoon.

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 been steadily gaining power since June, raising concerns about an emerging Taliban-style regime. The United States accuses the group of having ties to al-Qaida, which it denies.

As Sunday's fighting wore on, the Islamic leadership in the capital, Mogadishu, began broadcasting patriotic songs about Somalia's 1977 war with Ethiopia. Abdi Mohamed Osman, who owns a shop in the capital, said businessman were closing their shops to go and fight.

"We are going to support our brothers on the front line," he said.

The Ethiopian airstrikes were the first against Somalia's Islamic movement. Ethiopia and Somalia have fought two wars over their disputed border in the past 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.

The militants, who want to govern Somalia according to Islamic law, invited foreign Muslims on Saturday to join their holy war against Ethiopian troops.

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 from the government by Islamic militia in September, residents saw several foreign Arab fighters disembarking from ships this week.

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.

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