Clashes Continue in Southern Somalia

By MOHAMED OLAD HASSAN
The Associated Press
Saturday, December 9, 2006; 9:29 PM

MOGADISHU, Somalia -- Government forces backed by Ethiopian troops clashed for a second day with Islamic militiamen near a village in southern Somalia, officials said Saturday.

Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi said that Islamic militiamen had attacked government positions, while Mohamed Ibrahim Bilal, an Islamic official, said the government had launched a counterattack at Rama'addey village.

"The Ethiopian troops along with government troops have counterattacked our militia. ... The fighting is going on," said Bilal, an official in the Bay region where the village is located.

Somalia's government and Ethiopia have consistently denied that Ethiopian forces are in the country but their presence has been widely reported by witnesses and journalists. Ethiopia has said that it has a few hundred military advisers in Somalia helping the government form a national army.

Somalia has not had an effective central government for 15 years, after warlords overthrew longtime dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991 and then turned on each other.

The transitional government was formed two years ago but it has been unable to assert its authority over the country. Since June, the Council of Islamic Courts has seized the capital, Mogadishu, and taken control of much of southern Somalia.

Rama'addey, about 50 miles southwest of the government's headquarters of Baidoa, is at a front line between the Islamic courts and government forces.

Speaking in neighboring Kenya's capital, Gedi told The Associated Press that the Islamic militia fought with a government reconnaissance force on Friday. He said it was clear the Islamic forces were attempting to destabilize his government by attacking his forces.

"They met with a reconnaissance team from the government in the area, some fighting took place and casualties were limited," Gedi said. "This morning, they have attacked the government forces on the front line and the fighting is continuing."

He said the fighting was not the beginning of a government offensive and reiterated that he was prepared for renewed peace talks, scheduled for later this month in Sudan. But he said it was clear the Islamic courts were attempting to continue their military advance in defiance of a U.N. resolution passed Wednesday.

The U.N. Security Council authorized an African force to protect Somalia's government and urged the Islamic militia to stop any further military expansion and join the government in peace talks. It threatens Security Council action against those who block peace efforts or attempt to overthrow the government. No measures were mentioned, but they could include sanctions.

On Friday, the rivals clashed in Safarnoolees village, which served as a base for government forces. The Islamic militiamen claimed that they had routed the government forces, which Deputy Defense Minister Salad Ali Jelle denied.

Eyewitnesses reported Saturday that they counted at least 15 people killed and 18 others wounded in that fighting.

"We could see the dead bodies, but we couldn't know who they were," said Sheikh Abdi Garre, who saw the bodies on the road to Baidoa, where he spoke by phone.

Sheikh Ibrahim Shukri Abuu-zeynab, a spokesman for the Islamic courts, said the dead were government and Ethiopian soldiers. Jelle denied that Ethiopians were fighting on the government side and said the dead were not government soldiers.

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Associated Press writers Salad Duhul and Mohamed Sheikh Nor in Mogadishu, Somalia, and Chris Tomlinson in Nairobi, Kenya, contributed to this report.


© 2006 The Associated Press