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"Ethiopia bombs Somalia airports"


 
Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Ethiopian Jets Bomb Airports in Somalia
By SALAD DUHUL
The Associated Press

 
Ethiopian jets bombed Somalia's two main airports Monday while ground troops
captured three villages and a strategic border town, lending Somalia's
internationally backed government crucial military aid in its struggle
against a powerful Islamic militia.

Russian-made jets swept low over the capital at midmorning, dropping two
bombs on Mogadishu International Airport, part of a major escalation in the
week-old fighting. The leader of the Islamic militia, Sheik Hassan Dahir
Aweys, flew into the airport shortly after the attack; it was not clear if
he was an intended target.

Air strikes also hit Baledogle Airport outside Mogadishu.

"We heard the sound of the jets and then they pounded," said Abdi Mudey, a
soldier with Somalia's Council of Islamic Courts, which has seized the
capital and much of southern Somalia since June.

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 northeast 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. A recent U.N.
report said 10 countries have been supplying arms and equipment to both
sides of the conflict, using Somalia as a proxy battlefield. 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.

Militia forces have surrounded Somali government forces in Baidoa, where
heavy artillery and mortar fire echoed through the streets, said Mohammed
Sheik Ali, a resident reached by telephone.

But Ethiopian-backed government troops appeared to take the initiative on
Monday.

Pro-government forces drove Islamic fighters out of the key border town of
Belet Weyne, then headed south in pursuit of fleeing militiamen, a Somali
officer said. Government troops were enforcing a curfew of 3 p.m. to 6 a.m.

"Anyone who has a gun but is not wearing a government uniform will be
targeted as a terrorist," said Aden Garase, a government soldier who was put
in charge of Belet Weyne.

On Ethiopian television Monday night, the defense ministry said troops would
move toward the city of Jowhar, about 55 miles from Mogadishu. Later,
Ethiopia made a push in that direction, capturing the villages of
Bandiradley, Adadow and Galinsor, according Yusuf Ahmed Ali, a businessman
in Adadow.

As its military forces advanced against militia fighters, Somalia's
government also sought to seal its borders in order to prevent foreign
Islamic militants from joining the Islamic courts forces.

Residents living along Somalia's coast have seen hundreds of militants
arriving by boat, apparently in answer to calls by religious leaders to wage
a holy war against Ethiopia.

It seems unlikely the government can blockade Somalia's 1,860-mile coastline
- the longest in Africa. But the closures could hamper humanitarian aid
deliveries to the country, where one in five children dies before age 5 from
a preventable disease.

The U.N. World Food Program airlifted several tons of food and other aid
into Somalia on Monday, but had not yet been notified of any border
closings, agency spokesman Peter Smerdon said.

The Islamic militia, which grew out of a network of ad hoc Muslim courts,
has brought a measure of law to a lawless country: The international airport
reopened in July after being closed for a decade.

But leaders of the Islamic courts movement alarmed the country's neighbors
by threatening to incorporate ethnic Somalis living in eastern Ethiopia,
northeastern Kenya and Djibouti into a Greater Somalia.

Many Somalis are enraged by Ethiopian intervention because the countries
have fought two wars over their disputed border in the past 45 years.
Somalia is overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim, while Ethiopia has a large Christian
minority.

Despite this friction, the Somali government - which has failed to assert
any real control since it was formed two years ago - relies on its
neighbor's military strength.

Earlier, Ethiopia had said it sent advisers to bolster the Somali
government's outgunned military forces, but denied dispatching combat
troops. The U.N., though, estimates that Ethiopia has 8,000 troops in the
country.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said Sunday that his country was
"forced to enter a war" with Somalia's Council of Islamic Courts after the
group declared holy war on Ethiopia.

So far, Ethiopian and Somali troops have used MiG jet fighters and artillery
to attack the Islamists, who have no military aircraft and can return fire
only with much smaller mortars and recoilless rifles.

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 that his goal is
to damage the courts' military capabilities, take away their sense of
invincibility and allow both sides to return to peace talks on an even
footing.

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.

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