December 27, 2006

African Union orders Ethiopia out

The African Union has demanded that all foreign players, including Ethiopia, immediately withdraw their forces from Somalia.

The call followed witness reports that Somali transitional government forces had seized a strategic southern town in the closest battle yet to the Mogadishu stronghold of the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC).

Alpha Omar Konare, the African Union (AU) chairman, said in a statement: “We appeal for urgent support for the transitional government and the withdrawal of all troops and foreign elements.”

Konare said that an AU mission would visit Somalia soon.

The AU appeal comes after the UN Security Council on Tuesday failed to agree on a statement calling for ending the war and the withdrawal of foreign troops from Somalia.

Several council members objected to the Qatari-circulated statement’s naming of Ethiopian forces in particular.

Meanwhile, Francois Lonseny Fall, the UN secretary-general’s special representative to Somalia, said the fighting had forced the UN to evacuate and halt assistance to two million people.

The UN World Food Programme has suspended air operations in Somalia and pulled out its air-support staff, officials said on Wednesday.

Fall of Jowhar

“The government has taken over Jowhar. I can see government troops on top of armoured vehicles chasing Islamists troops ... heading towards Mogadishu,” Mahamud Ismail, a resident, said on Wednesday from the town 90km north of the Somali capital.

Residents came out of their houses and cheered pro-government troops, backed by Ethiopian tanks, in pursuit of Islamic Courts fighters as sporadic fire echoed in the air, witnesses said.

A former local commander who ruled Jowhar before it was captured by the Islamic Courts in June led the Somali government troops as they drove into the city, residents said.

“Ethiopian troops and Mohammed Dheere have entered the city,” said Abshir Ali Gabre. Others said he was wearing a T-shirt that said “I love Jowhar” as he shook hands with residents.

Fighting continuing

Fighting could still be heard at a military camp south of the city.

The capture of Jowhar came hours after Ethiopia, defending the Somali interim government, said it was halfway to crushing the militia, heightening fears its next step would be to use air strikes and ground troops to seize the capital.

Troops headed for Jowhar after driving Islamic Courts fighters from Bandiradley, Adadow and Galinsor.

On Tuesday, fighters of Islamic Courts retreated from the main frontline after a week of artillery and mortar fighting.

Security Council statement

The Arab League is expected to hold a meeting on Wednesday with the African Union to discuss the situation in Somalia.

The Islamic Courts fighters appeared to be heeding a call by Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, a senior leader, that forces gather in the capital to prepare for a long war against Ethiopia.

“Most of our troops should converge in and around our bases in Mogadishu and should prepare for a very long war against our enemies,” he said late on Tuesday.

Thousands wounded

The Ethiopian prime minister said that more than 1,000 people have been killed in the fighting.

“We got reports of more than 3,000 wounded in a Mogadishu hospital. Those who died are well over 1,000,” Meles Zenawi said, two days after Ethiopia admitted military intervention in the country.

Al Jazeera

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