December 26, 2006

3 Sides Prepare for Battle in Somalia


Somalia government soldiers, joined by troops from neighboring Ethiopia, advanced toward Somalia's capital Tuesday as Islamic fighters dug in and promised a "new phase" in the war - a chilling pronouncement from a movement that has threatened suicide attacks.

Somalia called on the Council of Islamic Courts militias, bloodied by a week of artillery and mortar attacks, to surrender and promised amnesty if they lay down their weapons, government spokesman Abdirahman Dinari said.

As many as 1,000 people may have been killed and 3,000 wounded in the fighting, many of them foreign radicals, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said.

Meles said about 3,000 to 4,000 Ethiopian forces, which entered Somalia on Saturday, may soon wrap up their offensive against the Islamic militias that until recent days controlled most of southern part of the country.

"As soon as we have accomplished our mission - and about half of our mission is done, and the rest shouldn't take long - we'll be out," Meles told reporters in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.

The U.N. Security Council called an emergency meeting Tuesday for a briefing on the clashes.

Ethiopia sent fighter jets streaking deep into militia-held areas Sunday to help Somalia's U.N.-recognized government push back the Islamic militias. Ethiopia bombed the country's two main airports and helped government forces capture several villages.

Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, a top leader of the Islamic group, accused Ethiopian troops of massacring 50 civilians in the central town of Cadado. Ethiopian officials were not immediately available to respond.

Ahmed said his fighters are in tactical retreat in the face of superior Ethiopian firepower. But the military struggle has just begun, he added.

"The war is entering a new phase," Ahmed said from Mogadishu, the capital. "We will fight Ethiopia for a long, long time and we expect the war to go everyplace."

Ahmed declined to elaborate, but some Islamic leaders have threatened a guerrilla war to include suicide bombings in Addis Ababa.

Ismael Mohamoud Hurreh, Somalia's foreign minister, said Tuesday that the government's small military force has been training for this offensive for five months.

"We will hold our line very, very well, don't worry about that," Hurreh told reporters in Nairobi, Kenya.

Experts fear the conflict in Somalia could engulf the region. Islamic courts leaders have repeatedly said they want to incorporate ethnic Somalis living in eastern Ethiopia, northeastern Kenya and Djibouti into a Greater Somalia.

For months, foreign Islamic radicals - including Pakistanis, Arabs and Chechens - have been trickling into Somalia to fight on behalf of the Islamic movement. According to a U.N. report in October, Eritrea has dispatched 2,000 soldiers to Somalia to fight with the Islamic forces against the government.

Ethiopia's Meles said his goal is not to defeat the militias but severely damage their military power - and allow both sides to return to peace talks on an even footing.

"The rank and file of the Islamic Courts militia is not a threat to Ethiopia," he said Tuesday. "Once they return to their bases, we will leave them alone."

Ethiopian troops will not enter Mogadishu, he said. Instead, he said, Somali forces would encircle the city to contain the militias that control it.

Any effort by the Somali government or Ethiopia to take the capital risks a disaster similar to the U.S. intervention in Somalia in 1992.

That U.N.-sponsored mission ended in 1993, after Somali militiamen shot down a U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopter. Eighteen American servicemen were killed in the crash and vicious street fighting that preceded and followed, made famous in the book and movie "Black Hawk Down."

Somalia has not had an effective government since warlords overthrew longtime dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991, pushing the country into anarchy.

Two years ago, the United Nations helped set up a central government for the arid, impoverished nation on the Horn of Africa.

But until the past week, the government has not been able to extend its influence outside the city of Baidoa, where it is headquartered, about 140 miles northeast of Mogadishu.

The country was largely under the control of warlords until this past summer, when the Islamic militia movement pushed them aside.

One critical issue for the Somalian government is how clan leaders will respond to the Islamic courts movement's changing fortunes.

Clan elders tend to take the victor's side in the interest of minimizing violence in their villages. The 11 courts that make up the Islamic council are based on clan, vary widely in their interpretation of Islamic law and do not always get along.

Hurreh, the Somali foreign minister, said Somalis will embrace the fall of the Islamic militias. Their severe interpretation of Islam is reminiscent, to some, of Afghanistan's Taliban regime - ousted by a U.S.-led campaign in 2001 for harboring Osama bin Laden.

"A lot of people in Mogadishu will be very happy to chew some qat and have the Islamic courts out of their way," Hurreh said, referring to the narcotic leaf banned by many of the Islamic courts.

Many Somalis, however, are angered by Ethiopia's intervention because the countries have fought two wars over their disputed border in the past 45 years.


Associated Press writers Salad Duhul in Mogadishu, Les Neuhaus in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and Chris Tomlinson and Elizabeth A. Kennedy in Nairobi, Kenya, contributed to this report.

Copyright 2006 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed

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