Ethiopia Steps Up Attacks on Somalia

By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, December 26, 2006

LONDON, Dec. 25 -- Ethiopian warplanes attacked the airport in Somalia's capital, Mogadishu, on Monday in another major escalation of fighting between the Ethiopian-backed Somali government and the Islamic Courts movement that in recent months has taken over much of the country.

In Mogadishu, businesses shut down and thousands of enraged Somalis loyal to the Islamic movement rallied in the streets, once again proclaiming holy war against Ethiopia, a bitter enemy that is widely perceived to be supported by the U.S. government. Witnesses said young Somali men who have grown up in a country awash with AK-47 assault rifles continued to pour into recruiting centers to sign up to fight.

And 150 miles away on the front lines near Baidoa, seat of the fragile interim government, sources said that fighters from Eritrea and Pakistan, among others, had joined the Islamic movement's battle against Ethiopia in a conflict that analysts fear could engulf the Horn of Africa.

"The feelings are very bad, very confusing -- everywhere, it's confusing," said a businessman in Mogadishu who did not want to be identified. "I didn't expect this scale of war, but most Somalis, even if they were fighting each other before on a clan basis, they are united now against Ethiopia. And there's a feeling that the international community is not helping."

Thousands of Somalis who had fled war and drought earlier this year and epic flooding in recent weeks once again abandoned villages, leaving behind fields and livestock at harvest time, aid workers said. Droves of villagers trudged down muddy roads toward refugee camps just across the Kenyan border. The camps are already full of Somalis displaced by years of fighting and natural disasters.

"These families are really pushed into the extreme limits," Pedram Yazdi, a spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, said from Nairobi, adding that Red Cross-supported medical facilities had received more than 440 wounded and that the total "is rising every hour." Aid workers believe the number of dead is in the hundreds.

Meanwhile, Ethiopian officials said on state-run television Monday that they would continue the assault against the Islamic movement and vowed to push toward Mogadishu, clearing the Islamic fighters out of every town they control over the next five days. By Monday night, Ethiopian forces, which are vastly superior to the Islamic movement in conventional military terms, had secured the strategically important town of Beledweyne, which is near the Ethiopian border and along a main road to Mogadishu. The Associated Press reported that Ethiopian and government forces had also captured three villages in a push toward Jowhar, about 60 miles north of Mogadishu.

AP also reported that airstrikes hit a second airport, Baledogle Airport, outside Mogadishu.

Negotiations between Somalia's weak but internationally recognized interim government and the Islamic movement have fallen apart in recent months as the Islamic group has become stronger and advanced its control. The current conflict began even as the two sides had signed an agreement to de-escalate fighting and resume talks.

Analysts believe that Ethiopia's offensive is intended to force the movement back into negotiations by changing the situation on the ground.

But some analysts have expressed fear that Ethiopia's military calculation is seriously flawed, and that even if its superior military initially routs the Islamic movement, the ideologically driven militias will become only more motivated to pursue a guerrilla-style war or terrorist attacks across the region.

Ethiopia, which has fought two wars with Somalia in the past 45 years, is perceived as a historically Christian nation, though Muslims now make up nearly half its population.

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