December 26, 2006

Islamic forces retreat in Somalia but say they expect war ’to go everyplace’

By Associated Press
Tuesday, December 26, 2006

MOGADISHU, Somalia - Islamic fighters were in a tactical retreat Tuesday, a senior Islamic leader said, as government and Ethiopian troops advanced on three fronts in a decisive turn around in the battle for control of Somalia.
Somalia’s internationally backed government called on the Council of Islamic Courts to surrender and promised them amnesty if they lay down their weapons and stop opposing the government, spokesman Abdirahman Dinari said from Baidoa, the seat of the government.
Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, leader of the Council of Islamic Courts’ executive body, said the group had asked its troops to withdraw from some areas.
“The war is entering a new phase,” he said. “We will fight Ethiopia for a long, long time and we expect the war to go everyplace.”
Ahmed declined to explain is comments in greater detail, but some Islamic leaders have threatened a guerrilla war to include suicide bombings in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa.
Patrick Mazimhaka, the deputy chairman of the African Union Commission, expressed support for Somalia’s government and defended Ethiopia’s military advances.
“If Ethiopia feels sufficiently threatened, then we recognize the right of Ethiopia to defend itself if it thinks its sovereignty and its security are under direct threat.”
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 the government has not been able to extend its influence outside the city of Baidoa, where it is headquartered about 140 miles northwest of Mogadishu. The country was largely under the control of warlords until this past summer, when the Islamic militia movement seized power.
Experts fear the conflict in Somalia could engulf the region. John Prendergast, a senior adviser with the International Crisis Group, said the war “dangerously escalates regional tensions and leaves the Horn of Africa less secure than it has been in a long time.”
Some analysts also fear that the courts movement hopes to make Somalia a third front, after Afghanistan and Iraq, in militant Islam’s war against the West.
The Islamic group’s often 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. The U.S. government says four al-Qaida leaders, believed to be behind the 1998 bombing of the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, are now leaders in the Islamic militia.
The African Union, Arab League and a regional group known as IGAD were scheduled to take up Somalia at meeting on Wednesday designed to resume the peace process.
But Ahmed rejected any suggestion of resuming peace talks and appeared unbowed by his group’s losses. Skirmishes were continuing on Tuesday, with a witness in Bur Haqaba reporting that he heard explosions nearby after two Ethiopian jets flew overhead.
“I saw two helicopters, I heard the sounds of bombs at Lego village,” said Mohamed Abdulle Siidi by telephone. The account could not be immediately confirmed.
Islamic troops withdrew more than 50 miles to the southeast from Daynuney, a town just south of Baidoa. The retreat along the western front follows the bombing by Ethiopian jets of the country’s two main international airports. Advancing government and Ethiopian troops captured Bur Haqaba, one of the Islamists’ main bases after it was abandoned early Tuesday.
“We woke up from our sleep this morning and the town was empty of troops, not a single Islamic fighter,” Ibrahim Mohamed Aden, a resident of Bur Haqaba said.
Islamic fighters were also reportedly retreating on two other fronts. On the southern front, government troops captured Dinsor, Dinari said.
On the northern front, government and Ethiopian troops entered the town of Bulo Barde, where just two weeks ago an Islamic cleric said anyone who did not pray five times a day would be executed.
Government and Ethiopian troops were headed for Jowhar, 55 miles north of Mogadishu, after driving Islamic troops from Bandiradley, Adadow and Galinsor.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi announced on Saturday that he had sent troops into Somalia to fight international terrorists, defend Ethiopian interests and prop up the besieged U.N.-backed government, which only has a very small military force.
But Meles has said he does not intend to keep his forces in Somalia for long, perhaps only a few weeks. He has told visiting dignitaries in Addis Ababa that his goal is to severely damage the courts’ military capabilities, take away their sense of invincibility and allow both sides to return to peace talks on even footing.
Meles said he would not send troops into Mogadishu, but instead encircle the city to contain the Islamic forces.
The Islamic group, which wants to rule the country by the Quran, has been a source of grave concern by largely Christian Ethiopia. Since June, the group has seized control of the capital and much of southern Somalia.
No reliable casualty reports were immediately available. Both sides have claimed to have killed hundreds of their enemy, but independent observers were not given access to the battlefield.
The Arab League, which has mediated several rounds of talks between the Somali government and the Islamists, called on Monday for all parties involved to “immediately hold a comprehensive cease-fire.”
Many Somalis are enraged by the idea of Ethiopian involvement here because the countries have fought two wars over their disputed border in the past 45 years. Islamic leaders have repeatedly said they want to incorporate ethnic Somalis living in eastern Ethiopia, northeastern Kenya and Djibouti into a Greater Somalia.

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