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Peace Hopes Fade In Somalia As Fighting Rages
An Islamist soldier lay dead Thursday near Baidoa, Somalia, where fighting raged. The chief of Islamist forces said the country was at war.
ZANZIBAR, Tanzania, December 22, 2006 — Any hope of a quick peace in Somalia vanished in a burst of artillery shells today, as fighting raged between rival governments of the country for a third day straight.
Residents in Baidoa, the seat of the internationally-recognized transitional government of Somalia, reported seeing columns of Ethiopian tanks rumbling toward the front lines, raising worries that Somalia’s internal problems could become regional ones.
Ethiopia has acknowledged sending several hundred military advisors to help the transitional government repel advances by Somalia’s powerful Islamist movement, which is based in Mogadishu, Somalia’s largest city and longtime capital. But Ethiopian officials continued to deny today that their troops were participating in combat.
“Tanks? What tanks?” said Zemedkun Tekle, the spokesman for Ethiopia’s information ministry. “We have not sent any heavy arms into Somalia. Such talk is just propaganda to stir up the people.”
According to United Nations officials, the transitional government, with the help of thousands of Ethiopian troops, has inflicted heavy losses on the Islamists, who rely on teenage boys to do much of their fighting. Today, the fighting was concentrated in towns surrounding Baidoa, where witnesses said that dead bodies were piling up in the streets.
As the two sides continued to blast each other with machine guns and howitzers, thousands of residents tried to flee the city for safer areas, piling into minibuses with sacks of clothes on their shoulders.
The Islamists say that they are at war on Ethiopia, Somalia’s large, powerful, Christian-dominated neighbor. The two countries have clashed repeatedly in the past over contested border areas, and the Islamist leaders, along with many ordinary Somalis, consider Ethiopian troops inside Somalia to be invaders.
Sheik Ibrahim Shukri Abu-Zeynab, a spokesman for the Islamists, said today that the fighting will only worsen.
“We will now start our real attack against the invaders, and will not stop until we force the Ethiopians out of our country,” the sheik said at a news conference in Mogadishu.
That battle-scarred city is the center of the Islamist war effort. Residents said today that they saw sailboats packed with foreign mercenaries landing on seaside capital’s rocky beaches. In town, mosques blared out calls for retired soldiers to join the Islamist army’s ranks and lend their expertise to what the Islamists say is a holy war.
Schools have been closed indefinitely so that more young people can fight at the front. And the first batch of wounded soldiers has begun to limp into the few remaining hospitals still open in the city.
Somalia has been mired in crisis since 1991, when the central government collapsed, setting off a long, nasty clan war. While the United Nations and donor nations struggled to get a new government organized and on its feet, a grassroots movement of Islamic courts began to accumulate power.
The Islamic movement defeated the last of Mogadishu’s clan warlords in June, and immediately restored an atmosphere of law an order that had not been seen in the capital for 15 years. Then it began to push outwards, eventually reaching the outskirts of Baidoa, which Islamists troops are now attacking from two sides.
The transitional government, meanwhile, has never been widely popular, and its leaders spend much of their time outside Somalia. American officials have said that if it were not for Ethiopian protection, the transitional government would have fallen months ago.
The fighting near Baidoa began on Wednesday, just as European diplomats were meeting with leaders from both sides in an effort to reach a peace agreement. The diplomats were initially upbeat about the chances of a truce. But as the fighting has continued, the diplomats have steadily become more pessimistic, saying that the rank-and-file Islamists seem bent on war even if their leaders are actually more conciliatory.
Mohammed Ibrahim contributed reporting from Mogadishu.
Source: New York Times