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Ethiopian Troops Moving Closer To Mogadishu
MOGADISHU, July 22, 2006 – Ethiopian troops were moving closer to the Somali capital Mogadishu on Friday amid fears of all-out war in the volatile Horn of Africa nation where Islamists have risen to power, witnesses told Reuters.
Ethiopian soldiers were moving beyond the provincial seat of the interim Somali government in Baidoa to the towns of Buur Hakaba and Baledogle, various local residents said.
Addis Ababa denies it has soldiers there, while the Somali government, which has little authority beyond Baidoa, said people were confusing its militia because they were wearing uniforms donated from Ethiopia.
Nominally Christian-led Ethiopia, the main power in the Horn of Africa, views the Islamists as "terrorists" and supports Somalia's interim government. It has not hesitated to send troops in to attack radical Islamic militia in the past.
Some 2,500 Ethiopian soldiers remained camped in Baidoa, protecting government installations like parliament, the presidential palace and the town's airport, the witnesses said.
"A few are walking on the streets. Although the town is calm, people fear the presence of Ethiopian troops might trigger a war here," said Ali Hassan, a Baidoa resident.
Another resident said Ethiopians had stationed their heavy equipment and military arsenal near an airport at Eldon town, 18 kms (11 miles) north of Baidoa.
Somalia's deputy information minister Salad Ali Jelle rubbished reports of an Ethiopian incursion, saying government forces had mobilised because of recent Islamist advances and were being mistaken because they were wearing donated uniforms.
"People are confusing the government troops wearing military uniforms donated by Ethiopia," he told Reuters.
"There are around 3,000 patrolling Baidoa, and its vicinity, as well as guarding government buildings like the parliament... There are no Ethiopians whatsoever in Baidoa."
ANNAN URGES PEACE
In the Islamists' stronghold of Mogadishu, which they took from U.S.-backed warlords in June, demonstrators were set to protest against the incursion by Ethiopian troops and express support for their new Muslim rulers.
The Mogadishu demonstration, organised by civil society groups and businessmen whose money has underpinned the Islamist rise, was to start after Friday prayers, organisers said.
"We will show that Mogadishu is a peaceful place and totally in the hands of the peace-loving Islamist Courts," said Hussein Ali, one of the civil society organisers.
The rise of the Islamists has threatened the authority of the transitional administration of President Abdullahi Yusuf, formed in 2004 to steer the nation from anarchy to peace.
Western nations back Yusuf's government in principle, but recognise it has little political or military power.
Fears of a new war have risen sharply this week, with the Islamists vowing jihad against troops crossing from Ethiopia, and Addis Ababa threatening to crush any attack on the government or movement of Islamist militia across the border.
A brief movement of Islamist militia on Wednesday to and from Buur Hakaba -- which lies between Baidoa and Mogadishu -- appears to have ratcheted up tensions.
Organisers of the Mogadishu rally said they would mobilise scores of vehicles to demonstrate they were enjoying peace under the Islamists for the first time in 15 years.
Prior to the Islamist takeover, warlords controlled Mogadishu with road-blocks since the 1991 ouster of a military dictator ushered in a period of anarchy.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan called on all sides to avoid any provocation. He "urges the Somali parties to engage in a sustained dialogue to find a consensual and durable solution to the country's problem," a spokesman said in New York.
"He also calls on the international community to intensify its support to peace efforts and to encourage the Somali parties to pursue negotiations," the spokesman said.
Islamist-government peace talks in Khartoum have stalled.