Somali tensions rise as Ethiopia sends in troops

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Map of Somalia

Tensions are escalating rapidly on the horn of Africa as the United Islamic Courts (UIC) closed in on Baidoa, the home of Somalia’s beleaguered interim government on Wednesday. Yet as the Islamic militia were reportedly massing troops after capturing the country’s capital, Mogadishu on 11 July, soldiers from Somalia’s neighbour Ethiopia crossed the country’s borders, sparking vitriolic attacks on both sides.

The Islamic militants vowed to start a "holy war" against its neighbour, while the Ethiopian Information Minister Berhan Hailu said "We will use all means at our disposal to crush the Islamist group if they attempt to attack Baidoa, the seat of the transitional federal government."

This threat came after Islamist troops, fresh from taking Mogadishu last week, were seen less than 60km from Baidoa. They later pulled their troops back, claiming they were collecting defected troops and not planning an attack.

A convoy of around 2,000 soldiers were seen crossing the Ethiopian frontier overnight, joining another 2,000 troops already based in the border town of Luk. Others have reported seeing men in Ethiopian uniform inside Baidoa itself.

Despite eyewitness accounts to the contrary, Ethiopia so far denies sending troops into Somalia. Bereket Simon, a government spokesperson, told the BBC World Service that "so far" no government troops were inside the country. However a direct conflict seems more and more likely, as Mr. Simon confirmed that "Ethiopia is in a position to defend itself to ensure the stability of the Horn of Africa".

The Ethiopian government has openly backed the provisional government which has held a weak power over the country since 1991. The mainly Christian country fears the possibility of the United Islamic Courts ruling Somalia, in light of the strict laws the Islamist Courts impose.

The latest events have thrown the already troubled peace negotiations into turmoil. Representatives from both the Islamist Courts and the government are in delicate talks in the Sudanese capital Khartoum. Ali Mohamed Gedi, the Somali prime minister urged Islamist troops to stop their advances on the interim capital, pleading for more time for negotiations. Government diplomats boycotted talks last week, but more meetings are set for the 22nd July.

Yet direct conflict seems more and more likely, according to analysts. Despite some loyal troops the provisional government is too weak to take on the Islamist militias, but with Ethiopia now making firm moves to support the besieged government it seems war may come before peace in battle-torn Somalia.