Somali government troops backed by Ethiopians today prepared to launch a major assault on the last stronghold of Islamic movement militiamen.
US and British warships patrolled off the Somali coast to prevent militiamen from escaping by sea.
The US 5th Fleet said in a statement yesterday that coalition ships from a British-led Combined Task Force were boarding as part of the effort to deny an escape route to al-Qaida suspects believed working with the Somali Islamic movement.
Somali and Ethiopian force captured a southern town near the Kenyan border yesterday evening.
Col Barre “Hirale” Aden Shire, defence minister in the UN-backed transitional government, said Islamic militiamen were dug in with their backs to the sea at Ras Kamboni at the southern-most tip of Somalia.
“Today we will launch a massive assault on the Islamic courts militias. We will use infantry troops and fighter jets,” said Shire, who left for the battle zone Friday. ”They have dug huge trenches around Ras Kamboni but have only two options: to drown in the sea or to fight and die.”
Somali government and Ethiopian troops routed the Council of Islamic Courts militia last week, driving them out of the capital and their strongholds in southern Somalia.
Al-Qaida’s deputy leader urged Somalia’s Islamic militia to attack troops from Ethiopia, which has a large Christian population, according to Internet audio posted Friday.
“I speak to you today as the crusader Ethiopian invasion forces violate the soil of the beloved Muslim Somalia – launch ambushes, land mines, raids and suicidal combats until you consume them as the lions and eat their prey,” Ayman al-Zawahri said in the audio message.
The message could not immediately be verified but was aired on a Web site frequently used by militants and carried the logo of al Qaida’s media production wing, al-Sahab.
Three al-Qaida suspects wanted in the 1998 bombings of US embassies in East Africa are believed to be leaders of the Islamic movement in Somalia. The movement’s leaders deny having any links to terror network.
US Defence Department officials said last month that a Navy strike group being sent to the Persian Gulf region as a show of force to Iran, at odds with the US over its nuclear program and over Iraq, also would be available to help in Indian Ocean waters off Somalia’s coast.
A US Navy officer in the Gulf said today that the only US aircraft carrier in the region, USS Dwight Eisenhower, out of Norfolk, Virginia, was not being deployed to the Somali coast.
The officer said he could not discuss the possibility of other carriers moving into the zone. However, the officer questioned media reports that another aircraft carrier, the USS John Stennis, was being deployed.
As of yesterday, the Stennis had not been ordered to move to the region, said the officer, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue.
A meeting in Kenya of US, EU, African and Arab diplomats on Somalia ended today with a US pledge to provide £20 million to Somalia in political, humanitarian and peacekeeping assistance, and a plan to ask more African nations to provide troops to help stabilise the country.
The European Union said it would also help pay for a peacekeeping force envisioned at 8,000 troops. The international support for peacekeepers was implicitly tied to political dialogue, with the Somali government pressed to talk with all segments of society to stop 15 years of chaos.
Somali foreign minister Ismael Mohamoud Hurreh, said his government already is based on reconciliation and plans no special effort to talk to political opponents and critics.
Ethiopian soldiers, tanks and warplanes intervened in Somalia on December 24 to defeat an Islamic movement that threatened to overthrow the internationally recognised government, which at the time controlled only the western town of Baidoa. But Ethiopia’s government wants to pull out in a few weeks, saying its forces cannot be peacekeepers and it cannot afford for them stay.
The Islamic movement has vowed to launch an Iraq-style guerrilla war, raising the prospect of bloody reprisals against foreign peacekeepers. Somalia’s interior minister said Thursday that 3,500 Islamic fighters were still hiding in the capital.
Kenya closed its border amid fears militants would slip across the frontier. The United Nations said thousands of refugees were also near the border, unable to seek safety in Kenya.
Mogadishu, Somalia’s ruined seaside capital, teems with weapons, and some of the feared warlords of the past have returned to the city with their guns.
The UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, known as OCHA, said today armed militia were reported to be on the roads to Baidoa and other towns in southern Somalia, engaging in looting, banditry, extortion and harassment of civilians.
The agency also said that in recent days there had been reports of at least three rapes involving militiamen.
In addition, Ethiopian soldiers detained a UN security staff member at the southern town of Af Madow and his whereabouts were unknown, OCHA said in the statement.
Somalia’s last effective central government fell in 1991, when clan-based warlords overthrew military dictator Mohamed Siad Barre and then turned on each other.
A UN peacekeeping force, including US troops, arrived in 1992 to help restore order. The next year, fighters loyal to clan leader Mohamed Farah Aideed shot down two US Army Black Hawk helicopters and battled American troops, killing 18 servicemen. The US pulled out soon afterward, and the UN scaled down.
The ease with which Somalis can get weapons is a major problem. Thursday was Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi’s deadline for residents to voluntarily give up their arms, but only a handful were seen doing so. Gedi said the disarmament program was working.
Gedi swore into the army on Friday thousands of soldiers who served under Siad Barre’s regime. Most were well over 50, wore old uniforms and carried no weapons.
Source: Ireland Online