A Turning Point
A T U R N I N G P O I N T
Unidentified soldiers lie dead in Idale, in this December 24, 2006 handout photo from
Somalia's government, which said the bodies belonged to Islamist fighters killed in recent
fighting against Ethiopia and government forces. REUTERS
The bodies of Islamist fighters, top, lay Sunday near Idaale, Somalia. Ethiopian warplanes struck
deep inside Somalia territory, and tanks pushed farther into towns, in support of Somalia’s
Government troops in Baidoa detain a fighter loyal to the Islamic Courts movement,
which controls much of Somalia.
A body, identified as that of an Ethiopian soldier by the Islamist courts, is seen on a battleground in Idale, December 24, 2006.
A body, identified as that of an Ethiopian soldier by the Islamist courts, is seen on a battleground in Idale, December 24, 2006.
Ethiopia Hits Somali Targets, Declaring War
By JEFFREY GETTLEMAN
The New York Times
December 25, 2006
ZANZIBAR, Tanzania, Dec. 24 — Ethiopia officially plunged into war with Somalia’s Islamist forces on Sunday, bombing targets inside Somalia and pushing ground troops deep into Somali territory in a major escalation that could turn Somalia’s internal crisis into a violent religious conflict that engulfs the entire Horn of Africa.
The coordinated assault was the first open admission by Ethiopia’s Christian-led government of its military operations inside Somalia, where — with tacit American support — it has been helping a weak interim government threatened by forces loyal to the Islamic clerics who control the longtime capital, Mogadishu, and much of the country.
Ethiopia’s prime minister, Meles Zenawi, said in a televised broadcast that he had ordered the action because he had no choice.
“Ethiopian defense forces were forced to enter into war to protect the sovereignty of the nation,” he said. “We are not trying to set up a government for Somalia, nor do we have an intention to meddle in Somalia’s internal affairs. We have only been forced by the circumstances.”
According to witnesses, Ethiopian fighter jets bombarded several towns, obliterating an Islamist recruitment center and other targets, while Ethiopian tanks rolled into battle. The attacks set off riots in Mogadishu, Somalia’s battle-scarred seaside capital, and fighting on several fronts in southern Somalia.
Ethiopia, which commands the region’s most powerful military, did not disclose how many troops, tanks or planes it had sent into Somalia, but the United nations has said at least 8,000 Ethiopian soldiers may be in the country. Casualties were reported Sunday, but reliable estimates were impossible to ascertain.
Until now, Ethiopian officials had denied that they had any combat forces inside Somalia, saying instead that their involvement was limited to a few hundred military advisers.
Over the past few months, the Islamist clerics in Somalia have threatened Ethiopia for supporting their rivals, the internationally recognized transitional government.
On Saturday, after several days of heavy internal fighting, Islamist leaders announced that Somalia was now open to Muslim fighters around the world who wanted to wage a holy war against Ethiopia, a country with a long Christian history, even though it is about half Muslim.
“What did you expect us to do?” said Zemedkun Tekle, a spokesman for Ethiopia’s information ministry. “Wait for them to attack our cities?”
Even before Ethiopia’s escalation on Sunday, there were alarming signs that the conflict in Somalia could quickly spiral out of control. According to United Nations officials, at least 2,000 soldiers from Eritrea, which recently waged war with Ethiopia, are fighting for the Islamists. They have been joined by a growing number of Muslim mercenaries from Yemen, Egypt, Syria and Libya who want to turn Somalia into the third front of holy war, after Iraq and Afghanistan.
On Friday, residents of Mogadishu said they saw boatloads of armed men landing on the city’s rocky beaches. On Sunday, after the bombings, Islamist leaders boasted of bringing in more. Still, from the Ethiopian government’s viewpoint, the bombings may be delivering at least some of the desired effect.
For the first time since the Islamists came to power in Somalia in June and rapidly began expanding their reach, they seemed to be losing ground. In at least three places on Sunday — Idaale, Jawil and Bandiiradley — transitional government troops were pushing the Islamists back.
Residents of Beledweyne, near the Ethiopian border, said that after the Ethiopian jets pounded several armed pickup trucks belonging to the Islamists, the rest of the Islamist soldiers fled to the hills.
The bombs also destroyed a recruitment center and a fuel depot, killing at least 10 people, witnesses reported. Hours later, the transitional troops marched into the area, and a new mayor was installed.
Many of Beledweyne’s people seemed relieved, not so much about the change in government, but because the fighting appeared to have ended so fast.
“We’re so sick of war,” said Ahmed Issa, a shopkeeper in Beledweyne. “We’ll obey anybody.”
Much of Somalia has been mired in anarchy since 1991, when the central government collapsed, setting off a long, nasty interclan war. While the United Nations and donor countries struggled to get a new government on its feet, a grass-roots movement of Islamic courts began to gain power.
After Islamist leaders defeated the last of Mogadishu’s warlords, they immediately restored a sense of law and order unheard of in the capital for 15 years. Then they began pushing outward, eventually reaching the outskirts of Baidoa, the seat of the transitional government.
The transitional government has never been popular, and its military forces are divided between rival politicians, many of whom spend the majority of their time outside of Somalia. This summer, Ethiopia began slipping soldiers across the border to protect both the transitional government and Ethiopia itself.
The Islamists had threatened to liberate Somali-speaking areas of Ethiopia and stir up Ethiopia’s Muslim population.
American officials acknowledged that they tacitly supported Ethiopia’s approach because they felt it was the best way to check the growing power of the Islamists, whom American officials have accused of sheltering terrorists tied with Al Qaeda. A State Department spokesperson in Washington said Sunday that the United States was assessing reports of the surge in fighting in Somalia but provided no further comment.
A major question going forward seems to be whether Ethiopian forces will advance into Mogadishu and try to finish off the Islamist military, a possibility that many fear could spur a long and ugly insurgency, or simply deal the Islamists enough of a blow to force them back to negotiations with the transitional government.
The rival authorities in Somalia have flirted with the idea of sharing power, but several rounds of peace talks have produced little but broken promises.
In a hint of a possible direction to come, Ethiopia’s prime minister recently told American officials that he could wipe out the Islamists “in one to two weeks.”
But many analysts fear that the presence of Ethiopian troops in Somalia will only make matters worse, because of the history of conflict between Ethiopians and Somalis. The two nations have battled over contested border areas before, and the difference of religions, with Somalia almost purely Muslim, has often been an aggravating factor.
On Sunday, as word began to spread that Ethiopian planes were bombing Somalia, students in Mogadishu rushed into the streets and began rioting. They kicked in doors and smashed plate glass windows, yelling at the few shopkeepers still open: “This is not time for business! This is time for war!”
The Islamists are using teenagers as their main fighting force. Last week, right after heavy combat began between the Islamist troops and the transitional government forces, Islamist leaders closed all schools in Mogadishu to funnel more young people into battle.
Witnesses in frontline areas have said that waves of young, poorly trained Islamist fighters have been mowed down by Ethiopian troops. Ethiopia’s military is trained by American advisers and is supplied with millions of dollars of American aid.
On Sunday, Abdulrahim Ali Modei, the Islamists’ information minister, conceded at a news conference that many of the Islamist troops had been killed, but he did not sound discouraged.
“These are victories,” he said. “Our soldiers are in paradise now.”
Yussuf Maxamuud and Mohammed Ibrahim contributed reporting from Mogadishu, Somalia.
Ethiopian Aircraft Bomb Somali Towns In Escalating Conflict
Troops Hit Islamic Forces on Four Fronts
By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, December 25, 2006; Page A18
LONDON, Dec. 24 -- Ethiopian troops attacked Somalia's Islamic Courts movement on four fronts, Ethiopian officials said Sunday, with jets bombing several towns in a significant escalation of fighting that threatens to spill across the Horn of Africa.
It was the first time the Ethiopian government had acknowledged having troops in Somalia to protect the interim Somali government against the Islamic movement, which has taken over most of the southern part of the country, including the capital, Mogadishu. The United Nations had estimated that at least 8,000 Ethiopian troops were in Somalia, but Ethiopia previously said it had only a few hundred military trainers there.
For a sixth day, the heaviest fighting took place outside the southern town of Baidoa, the government's only stronghold, and sources said the Ethiopians were close to taking the town of Beledweyne, about 150 miles to the northeast.
Fighting was also reported around the town of Gaalkacyo, near the Ethiopian border along a main supply route to the north.
Meanwhile, thousands of Somalis, who have endured decades of war and deprivation, fled their homes to escape bullets, rockets and mortar fire, while others were trapped by the two sides' advance.
Sources said casualties probably numbered in the hundreds, although U.N. officials said it was unclear how many were fighters and how many civilians.
In Mogadishu, Islamic movement leaders, who have received support from Ethiopia's bitter enemy, Eritrea, and other countries, called on foreign fighters to join a holy war against Ethiopian troops.
This week and all day Sunday, young men in the battered capital have signed up for war and AK-47 assault rifles, Somali sources said.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, an increasingly authoritarian leader, has said that the United States supports his country's right to protect itself. For months, he has characterized any possible Ethiopian military action in Somalia as motivated by self-defense.
As fighter jets streaked across Somalia on Sunday, Ethiopian officials speaking on state-run television again accused the Islamic movement of supporting ethnic Somali insurgent groups in Ethiopia, a charge that Ethiopian opposition leaders have said was overblown and out of date.
The United States and Ethiopia have also accused the Islamic movement of harboring terrorists, a charge it has repeatedly denied.
The Islamic movement, in turn, has accused the United States of tacitly giving Ethiopia a green light to invade. In a recent interview, Ibrahim Hassan Addou, foreign minister for the Islamic Courts, said that even if the movement was harboring terrorists, the United States should pursue them lawfully by presenting evidence, rather than "by threats and intimidation."
"If war breaks out, the U.S. is siding with Ethiopia . . . and the consequences of war will be because of Ethiopia and the U.S.," he said.
Ethiopia is dominated by Christian leaders and a Christian army, although Muslims now make up nearly half the population. The Courts movement has highlighted that in its efforts to recruit young Muslim fighters.
Somalia, a clan-based society that has been without a central government since 1991, has historically been of great strategic importance to the United States because of its proximity to the Middle East and Red Sea oil-shipping routes.
But U.S. policy there has failed to do much more than incur the antipathy of ordinary Somalis.
Earlier this year, the CIA financed warlords who called themselves an "anti-terrorism coalition" but mostly terrorized ordinary Somalis, who came to hate them. It was in that context that the Courts came to power in June.
Initially a grouping of local clerics, the Courts imposed Islamic law village by village, and by most accounts established a sense of order, although many Somalis have expressed discomfort with the harsher aspects of Islamic law.
Analysts and diplomats fear that even if Ethiopia initially routs the Courts, a regional war of terrorist-style attacks would follow. Already, car bomb attacks in Baidoa have killed several people, although no one has asserted responsibility.
A Somali government soldier guards a path in Moode Moode a town nine miles from the overnment
garrison town of Baidoai. Friday, Dec 22, 2006. Thousands of Somalis fled their
homes Friday as government and Ethiopians troops used artillery to defend
against Islamic fighters attempting to advance on the U.N.-backed regime's
only stronghold. (AP Photo/Mohamed Abdulle Hassan Siidi)
An Islamic Courts soldier lies dead at the Moode Moode front, east of Baidoa, Thursday,
Dec. 21, 2006.