By GEORGE GEDDA
The Associated Press
Tuesday, December 26, 2006; 10:20 PM
WASHINGTON -- The State Department signaled support Tuesday for Ethiopian military operations against Somalia, noting that Ethiopia has had "genuine security concerns" stemming from the rise of Islamist forces in its eastern neighbor.
Department spokesman Gonzalo Gallegos also said that the Ethiopian military acted at the request of Somalia's internationally backed secular government, which has been resisting with little success the spreading influence of the more powerful Islamist forces.
Gallegos noted that Ethiopia has said that its action is intended to prevent further aggression by the Islamic Courts militias.
Ethiopia's Christian-led government has received counter-terrorism assistance from the United States. It includes military training for aviation security, police training and border and coastal security, the Pentagon said.
The Bush administration has been increasingly alarmed by the growing strength of the militias and the welcome they reportedly have given to al-Qaida militants.
The Islamic militants operate under the umbrella of the Council of Islamic Courts.
The government has no presence in Somalia's capital, Mogadishu, its reach limited to the western town of Baidoa. In contrast, the CIC has dominated the country's entire southern region.
A priority U.S. goal in Somalia is the capture of three reputed al-Qaida militants wanted for the bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 and a hotel in Kenya in 2002. The three are from Sudan, Kenya and the Comoros Islands, located off Africa's east coast.
Al-Qaida militants are operating with "great comfort" in Somalia, Assistant Secretary of State Jendayi Frazer said recently.
The Islamists have caused unease in Washington by expressing interest in establishing a "Greater Somalia" that would include ethnic Somali regions of Ethiopia, Kenya and Djibouti.
According to a U.S. military official, the Ethiopian National Defense Forces wrested control of Belet Weyne from the Islamists. The action helped to cut an important communications link used by the Islamists to supply forces in the north.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information, also said the U.S. also believes that the Ethiopian military has taken Bur Hakaba and Dinsoor, forcing Islamic militants to retreat toward Mogadishu.
The official also said that while there have been some attacks on Mogadishu and Baledogle airports, planes can still land at both airports.
Two weeks ago, the Pentagon recommended a new U.S. military command for Africa, which is seen as having greater strategic importance to the United States since the start of the fight against terrorism.
At present, U.S. military responsibility for Africa has been split among several commands, all based elsewhere.
The United States consistently has backed the establishment of an African force to help defend the Baidoa government, thus creating a power balance between the government and the CIC and enhance prospects for negotiations on power sharing.
But with Ethiopia's invasion, creation of the force now seems highly unlikely.
Ethiopia has been backing the Somali government for months, while Eritrea has been supporting the Islamists.
A report by a U.N. panel last month said that in addition to Ethiopia and Eritrea, weapons had been sent to armed groups in Somalia by Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Iran, Djibouti, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Uganda. Most of the nations have denied the allegations.
The shipments would be in violation of a U.N. arms embargo against Somalia, in effect since 1992.