Ethiopians Closing In On Capital of Somalia

By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, December 27, 2006

LONDON, Dec. 26 -- Ethiopian troops fought their way closer to the Somali capital of Mogadishu on Tuesday, pushing back militias loyal to the Islamic Courts movement that has until now controlled much of the country and has vowed to wage a guerrilla war against Ethiopia lasting "years and years and years."

Aid workers said the number of injured had surpassed 800, as thousands of civilians battered by drought, floods and now rockets and mortars continued to flee villages in droves.

U.N. officials warned of a humanitarian crisis in Somalia, while fears remained high that Ethiopia's aggressive military campaign could have disastrous consequences not only for Somalia but across the Horn of Africa.

"I find it perplexing what the Ethiopians are up to," said David Shinn, a former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia. "Over the long term, I don't see where this gets them. And one wonders how long they can hang on in this situation, because eventually it's going to turn into a nasty guerrilla war, and I don't think the Ethiopians have the stomach to carry on with that kind of campaign."

It was unclear Tuesday whether Ethiopian troops were preparing to invade Mogadishu or merely surround it.

But Shinn and others noted that a force of 15,000 troops had failed to subdue the capital in 1993, when 18 U.S. troops were killed in an incident depicted in the book and film "Black Hawk Down."

At a news conference in Addis Ababa, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said that he had no plans to push into Mogadishu but that the campaign was only half-completed. The only option now, he added, was to win.

He said that he was pleased at how swiftly the campaign had gone and that 3,000 to 4,000 Ethiopian troops had "broken the back" of the Islamic Courts movement, which he has repeatedly accused of supporting secessionist groups in Ethiopia.

As Ethiopian troops pushed ahead, however, the Islamic Courts militias appeared to withdraw almost simultaneously from their front line positions, suggesting a coordinated strategy rather than a chaotic retreat, analysts said.

It was unclear where the Islamic fighters went. Some were spotted with their battle gear around Mogadishu; analysts said it was likely that most headed into the bush to prepare for a war on their own terms.

"The Islamic Courts know they can't confront Ethiopian tanks and airplanes" with ground troops and trucks mounted with machine guns, Shinn said. "I think they'd love to suck Ethiopia deep into Somalia and then slowly try to pick them off as they get bogged down."

On Tuesday, Islamic Courts leader Sharif Ahmed again condemned the international community for failing to stop the Ethiopian attack, which is widely perceived to have U.S. support, and he said the war had "entered a new phase."

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