Ethiopia intervenes in Somali civil war

Ethiopia stymied hopes for peace after it launched airstrikes against Islamist forces in Somalia on Sunday.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

As Ethiopia's Air Force launched bombing and missile raids on towns across central Somalia Sunday, a civilian population resigned to war bunkered down once again.

Villagers near the frontlines were fleeing from the airstrikes. Others farther away, fearing a wider attack, moved away from Islamist-held towns into the fields, carrying what they could on their backs or on donkey carts.

The attacks, which came as the Monitor went to press, were the first official reaction by Ethiopia's military to powerful Islamists who have taken control of much of Somalia since June and which Addis Ababa fears will boost hardline Islam inside its own borders. Confirmation of the attacks follows weeks of denials that Ethiopia was not involved in military action against Islamic elements within Somalia.

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With Ethiopia's determined intervention into the conflict between Somalia's Islamic Courts Union (ICU) and the country's powerless transitional government, what was once a "local" conflict now looks set to engulf the Horn of Africa. Ethiopia's arch-foe, Eritrea, is unlikely to stand by and watch its long-time enemy attack fellow Muslims.

Another harbinger of the Horn's future came in a recent UN report that said that 10 countries have been illegally supplying arms and equipment to both sides of the conflict and using Somalia as a proxy battlefield.

"It's not war which will kill most Somalis, it's neglect," says Josep Prior, head of mission in Somalia for the international aid group Medecins Sans Frontières (MSF).

The long-feared war was probably delayed only by floods which have swept through the country since August, limiting troop movements and swamping a population already reeling from searing drought.

Now the land around strategic towns has largely dried out. Skirmishes had erupted all last week between forces loyal to the government, based in the tumbledown town of Baidoa, and the courts, whose powerbase is Mogadishu.

Major fighting broke out last Tuesday night, but had tapered off before Sunday's predawn battles continued for about 10 hours. Ethiopian Information Minister Berhan Hailu said that Ethiopian forces fought alongside secular Somali soldiers in Dinsoor, Belet Weyne, Bandiradley, and Bur Haqaba.

The US government says four Al Qaeda leaders, believed to be behind the 1998 bombing of the US Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, have become leaders in Somalia's Islamic militia.

The US Central Intelligence Agency paid Somali warlords to capture the suspects early this year, but they were routed by the Islamic courts, who seized the momentum to take control of the capital, Mogadishu, and most of the southern half of the country.

Most of Jowhar's 30,000 people, while far from radical Muslims, had welcomed the ICU when they wrested control from the previous boss, a warlord called Mohamed Dhere, in June.

Since then, residents say the town has turned a corner.

The new Islamist government pacified the violent family groups called subclans, which make up the backbone of Somali society.

Subclan representatives have now joined together on committees to handle governance tasks like distributing food aid to flood victims. Such practical efforts, Somali observers say, are managed without religious considerations.

"There is only one court member [on the committee], and he doesn't hold the key to the food stores or decide where the money goes," says Mohamed Abdi Mirkow, the ICU's general secretary for Middle Shebelle Province.

The new administration has also appeared keen to assume the responsibilities of government, despite unpopular fundamentalist bans on playing music, talking politics, and chewing qat, a mild herbal stimulant.

For the first time in several years, MSF was able work in villages which were often out of bounds, venturing deep into the bush to hand out mosquito nets to fight malaria which soared since floods hit in August. Recent fighting is likely to limit their movement.

But as Jowhar's muezzins called the faithful to prayer one evening last week, MSF's eight expatriate staff gathered for the latest depressing security report that brought prospects of their evacuation ever closer.

Militia fighters loyal to the Islamic courts were still massing around Baidoa. Ethiopia's big guns were in place to support the administration.

Even Mr. Dhere, Jowhar's one-time warlord, was apparently readying for a return from positions just over the Ethiopian border.

With the weekend's attacks by the Ethiopians, that evacuation seems certain.

Nationwide, the window for a new stability for Somalia which opened when the courts first drove out the warlords, to wild popular acclaim, seems to have closed as the radicals in the ICU have assumed more and more control.

In the muddy lanes and market places of Jowhar, the finger of blame points unerringly at the US and Ethiopia for intensifying the war rhetoric that led to the courts' moderates losing ground to the fundamentalists.

"We were happy when the courts first came because we saw we would live in peace again," says one 25-year-old graduate, who was too afraid of the ICU's spy network to give his name.

"But these radicals," he continues, "who tell us how to interpret the Koran rather than let us read it for ourselves, they are in control now because they shout against America and Ethiopia, and that brings many bad people to their side."

Wire services were used in this story.

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