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Ethopia bombs Somalia declares war against Islamists

December 25, 2006

Ethiopia at War with Somalian Islamists

Ethiopian warplanes bombed the main airport in Mogadishu on Monday, wounding one person in Somalia's capital where Islamists have their stronghold, an airport official said. It was not clear how many times the airport was hit, with one local resident reporting two air strikes.

"The airport has been hit. A MiG jet dropped something," Abdirahim Adan, MD of the airport, said by telephone. "We are still trying to assess the damage, but one person has been injured."

The airport just recently reopened after the Islamic takeover of Mogadishu.

Omar Mahamud, a baggage handler at the airport, said staff heard the roar of jets and then a loud blast. "We were arranging bags when we heard a big explosion inside the airport. We all ran for our lives. I understand one woman cleaner was injured. We don't know exactly where at the airport the missile hit," he said by telephone.

In response, Somalia's encircled interim government closed all land, air and sea borders. "The government has decided to close our borders, air space and sea space," government spokesperson Abdirahman Dinari said by telephone. "We are requesting the international community, especially neighbouring states, to help us effect this."

The interim government is encircled by Islamist fighters in its south-central provincial base at Baidoa.

The air strikes came just hours after Somali troops, backed by Ethiopian soldiers, captured a key border town early on Monday and residents celebrated as government soldiers moved through the town and headed south in pursuit of fleeing Islamic militiamen, a Somali officer said.

On Sunday, just hours after his country launched fighter jets across the border in a dramatic escalation of a battle that has been simmering for months, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi declared that Ethiopia was at war with the Islamic movement in Somalia that wants to rule according to the Qur'an.

Sunday marked the first time Ethiopia has acknowledged that its troops are fighting in Somalia, though witnesses have been reporting their presence for weeks. Ethiopia supports Somalia's United Nations-backed government, which has been losing ground to the Islamists since June.

"Our defence force has been forced to enter a war to defend against the attacks from extremists and anti-Ethiopian forces and to protect the sovereignty of the land," Meles said in a television address. "Our intention is to win this war as soon as possible."

Ethiopia, a largely Christian nation that fears the emergence of a neighbouring Islamic state, dropped bombs on several towns held by the Council of Islamic Courts and its soldiers used artillery and tanks elsewhere. No reliable casualty reports were immediately available.

"They are cowards," said Sheik Mohamoud Ibrahim Suley, an official with the Islamic council. "They are afraid of the face-to-face war and resorted to air strikes. I hope God will help us shoot down their planes."

Experts fear the conflict in Somalia could engulf the already volatile Horn of Africa. A recent UN report said 10 countries have been illegally supplying arms and equipment to both sides of the conflict and using Somalia as a proxy battlefield. Residents living along Somalia's coast have seen hundreds of foreign Islamic radicals entering the country to answer calls by religious leaders to fight a holy war against Ethiopia.

The Islamic group's strict and often severe interpretation of Islam raises memories of Afghanistan's Taliban regime, which was ousted by a United States-led campaign for harbouring Osama bin Laden. The US government says four al-Qaeda leaders, believed to be behind the 1998 bombing of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, have become leaders in Somalia's Islamic militia.

The CIA paid Somali warlords to capture the suspects early this year, but they were routed by the Islamic courts, who seized the momentum to take control of the capital, Mogadishu, and most of the southern half of the country. Several rounds of peace talks have failed to yield any lasting results.

Major fighting broke out on Tuesday night, but had tapered off before Sunday's battles began before dawn and continued for about 10 hours. Ethiopian forces fought alongside secular Somali soldiers in Dinsoor, Belet Weyne, Bandiradley and Bur Haqaba, officials said.

Witnesses said a strategic road and an Islamic recruiting centre were hit in Belet Weyne, and 12 Ethiopian soldiers were reportedly captured nearby. "We saw 12 blindfolded men and were told they were Ethiopian prisoners captured in the battle," said Abdi Fodere, a businessman in Belet Weyne.

Less serious fighting also was reported in Baidoa -- the only town the government controls. "I think they have met a resistance they have never dreamt of before," Somali President Abdullahi Yusuf said in brief remarks from Baidoa as the fighting began to die down.

But Suley said his forces had destroyed four Ethiopian tanks outside the city.

As Sunday's fighting wore on, the Islamic leadership in the capital, Mogadishu, began broadcasting patriotic songs.

Meles has said his government has a legal and moral obligation to support and defend Somalia's internationally recognised 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.

Ethiopia and Somalia have fought two wars over their disputed border in the past 45 years, and Islamic court leaders have repeatedly said they want to incorporate ethnic Somalis living in eastern Ethiopia, north-eastern Kenya and Djibouti into a greater Somalia.

A group of ethnic Somali rebels with ties to the Islamic courts said it had intercepted a convoy of Ethiopian troops heading to Somalia on Saturday. According to a statement from the rebel group, the Ogaden National Liberation Front, the convoy turned back carrying several wounded soldiers.

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 250km north-west of Mogadishu.

The violence hits an already devastated country where one in five children dies before the age of five from a preventable disease. The impoverished nation also is struggling to recover from the worst flood season in East Africa in 50 years.

The UN World Food Programme (WFP) said it started dropping food into the region on Sunday shortly after the air strikes started. "Air drops are a last resort -- the roads aren't drying up and people need food," said Leo van der Velden, WFP deputy country director for Somalia.

Government officials and Islamic militiamen have said hundreds of people have been killed in clashes since Tuesday, but the claims could not be independently confirmed. Aid groups put the death toll in the dozens. Somalia's ambassador to Ethiopia, Abdikarin Farah, said the vast majority of the dead are from the Islamic forces.

Somalia has not had an effective government since warlords overthrew long-time dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991, plunging the country into chaos. The government was formed two years ago with the help of the UN, but has failed to assert any real control. The Islamic courts, meanwhile, have been steadily gaining power since June. -- Sapa-AP, Reuters

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