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Ethiopian PM: Islamic Militia A Threat

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Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi is seen during an interview with The Associated Press in the capital Addis Ababa Wednesday Nov. 1, 2006. Meles said Wednesday that Islamic militants in Somalia represent a threat to the Horn of Africa and the entire international community and that more must be done to contain them. (AP Photo/Les Neuhaus)

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia, November 1, 2006 -- Ethiopia's prime minister, who has sent troops to bolster Somalia's interim government, said Wednesday the al-Qaida-linked militants controlling much of the neighboring nation are a threat to the Horn of Africa and the wider world.

Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said he held out little hope that the secular, U.N.-backed acting government in Somalia can reach a peace agreement with the Islamic militants.

"Apparently some people believe that the al-Qaida elements in Mogadishu ... are people one can talk to in a reasonable manner, that they can be convinced not to be extremists," Meles said in an exclusive interview with The Associated Press.

The extremists "represent a direct threat first to Somalia and the Somali people, second to the region and Ethiopia, and lastly to the international community," he said. "When they control the whole of Somalia it would be very naive to assume that they will mend their ways, cease to be terrorists and become very civilized and very tame pussycats."

Ethiopia , a largely Christian nation, backs Somalia's two-year-old acting government, which has failed to exert any influence outside its base in the western city of Baidoa. Eritrea, a nation that broke away from Ethiopia in a 1961-91 civil war and fought a 1998-2000 border war with its rival, supports the Islamic militia.

A confidential U.N. report obtained by the AP on Friday said 6,000 to 8,000 Ethiopian soldiers are in Somalia or along their border while 2,000 troops from Eritrea are inside Somalia. Eritrea denied having any troops in Somalia, and Ethiopia says it sent only a few hundred advisers.

Meles controls the Ethiopian armed forces as head of a coalition that has governed since 1991. He previously confirmed sending military advisers to Somalia; that prompted the Islamic militia to declare a holy war against Ethiopia.

"In effect they have declared war on us, they have massed their troops very close to our border, so they have publicly shown that they pose a direct security threat to us," Meles said Wednesday. "It would be a dereliction of duty for any Ethiopian government to ignore that and welcome the takeover of the whole of Somalia by jihadists."

He declined to discuss what action he might take against the militants in Somalia.

The Arab League is sponsoring peace negotiations between the Somali government and the Islamic militia. But a third round in the effort, being held in Khartoum, Sudan, was suspended Wednesday after the two sides refused to sit down with each other.

Meanwhile, Islamic militants expanded their control by taking over an important Somali coastal town Tuesday night. The fighters peacefully seized Hobyo in the central Mudug region, according to an Islamic official.

The leaders of the Council of Islamic Courts have demanded that Ethiopian troops withdraw from Somalia before they will meet with the interim government. They have also called for Somalia's secular national charter to be replaced with Islamic law.

Meles said he has little faith that extremist elements within the Islamic group would ever honor an agreement with the transitional government.

"I think so far the talks have not been serious. I believe the (extremists) believe they have the military momentum and that they are using the talks in Khartoum as a cover for their military takeover," he said.

The prime minister said international diplomats do not take the threat posed by the militants seriously. The Islamic group appears to be split between a moderate wing which is ready to negotiate, and an extremist wing led by men the United States accuses of having ties to al-Qaida.

Meles insisted the Ethiopian soldiers in Somalia are there only to train a new Somali national army and protect the interim government. He said the training began about a month ago and the new army was not yet capable of protecting the transitional government.

Meles first warned about Somalia's Islamic militants during a May 2005 interview with the AP, but he said the world did little to build up the transitional government, allowing the Islamic militants to become the most powerful military force in the country.

"I believe the international community could have done more and should have done more," he said.

Source: AP

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