December 18, 2006

War stalks Somalia's 'City of Death'

Associated Press

A headless statue of a soldier stands guard at the entrance of Somalia's "City of Death" - a fitting monument in a place once more stalked by war. An Islamic movement, accused of having al-Qaida terrorists in its ranks, and a new U.N.-backed government struggling to end 15 years of anarchy are vying for control of this nation and girding for battle.

"We are used to war in Somalia, it holds no fear for us," Sadia Ali Mohamed, a 28-year-old mother of two, told The Associated Press as she strolled through Baidoa's bustling market, buying beans for her children.

"But now after all this time we want peace."

Baidoa, which earned its ominous nickname in 1992 when famine and war left thousands dying in the streets, is the U.N.-backed government's temporary capital.

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

The government now holed up in Baidoa was formed in 2004 with the help of the United Nations, but it has struggled to assert its authority. The Islamic network that has emerged to fill the vacuum in much of southern Somalia, including the capital, Mogadishu, has among it radicals who have been linked to anti-Western terrorists and have vowed to bring Quranic rule to Somalia.

Baidoa is a squalid place, lacking clean water and electricity and where children play alongside rubbish rotting in the street. It hardly seems worth dying for.

Some 40 miles to the north, east and south of the city several thousand armed militia loyal to the Islamic movement have set up camp and threatened to attack. Since June the group has expanded control across much of southern Somalia.

Ethiopia, a Christian nation fearing a hardline Islamic neighbor, has deployed troops in support of the government. Ethiopia, home to a community of ethnic Somalis, also is worried by declarations from some in the Islamic movement about their desire to unite all Somalis into a "Greater Somalia."

Military vehicles with Ethiopian plates rumble through the potholed streets and Ethiopian soldiers haggle in Baidoa's markets for a bargain to take home.

Both the transitional government and Ethiopia insist the troops, in camouflaged uniforms but without insignia, are military advisers, not a fighting force.

Somali soldiers man checkpoints on all roads in and out of Baidoa, a city of 70,000, after two recent suicide car bomb attacks, one of which nearly killed the president. Government forces regularly test weapons, purple tracer fire from their guns visible in the night sky.

"The government is the beginnings of legitimacy," Somalia's President Abdullahi Yusuf told The Associated Press on Friday. "It is a return to law and order ... the alternative is a return to chaos."

The presence of the Ethiopian troops and Somali soldiers has clearly reassured the local population. Movie theaters continue to show soccer games and men gather in cafes. Traditional mystical poets perform in the streets.

"We feel safe and do not think the Islamic forces will be able to attack Baidoa," said Hassan Ali Abdi, a merchant. "We are ready and prepared now."

Both the United Nations, using its financial support for the transitional government, and the European Union, are increasing pressure to get both sides to pull back from war. EU Development Commissioner Louis Michel is expected to travel Wednesday for talks in Baidoa, and Mogadishu, where the Islamic group is based.

But long term prospects for peace look dim. And conflict could engulf the already volatile Horn of Africa. A recent U.N. report said 10 nations have been sending weapons to the warring sides in Somalia. Eritrea, Ethiopia's traditional rival, is supporting the Islamic movement.



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