Fighting between Ethiopians and Somali insurgents escalates in Mogadishu

Fierce fighting raged on in Somalia's capital Friday, a day after Ethiopian troops supporting Somalia's transitional government launched an offensive against insurgents loyal to the ousted Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) and Somali clan members who oppose the UN-backed government.

The Associated Press reports that the offensive is part of a "three-day push to restore order in Mogadishu" before the remaining Ethiopian troops in Somalia withdraw from the country.

The BBC reports the Ethiopian troops, supported by helicopter gunships and tanks, have clashed with "hundreds of insurgents armed with rocket launchers and machine guns," leading to a virtual lockdown in the city.

"This is the worst fighting Mogadishu has seen since the Islamists were ousted. Explosions can be heard all over the city and many people are just holed up in their homes," resident Zenaib Abubakar told the BBC Somali Service.

According to Agence France-Presse, at least 38 people, many of them civilians, have died since the fighting began on Thursday.

Reuters reports that as two Ethiopian helicopters were "firing on an insurgent stronghold," one of the aircraft was shot down by a missle or rocket-propelled grenade.

"Smoke billowed from the cabin and it turned toward the ocean," said Swiss journalist Eugen Sorg, who watched from a nearby roof. "It crashed at the south end of airport runway."

Witnesses said black smoke poured into the air and several explosions were heard booming from the crash site.

Reuters says that the combination of air strikes and artillery battles in heavily-populated areas of the city, along with scenes of mob violence and "wild-eyed gunmen," is reminiscent of Mogadishu during the failed 1993 US mission to hunt down warlords in the Somali capital, which was recounted in the book "Black Hawk Down."

The violence comes three months after Ethiopian and Somali government forces ousted the UIC, a hardline Islamic movement that had taken over much of the country. The Christian Science Monitor reported in January that many Somalis did not welcome the Ethiopian military presence.

Ethiopian forces are not popular in this battle-scarred land. Many in Mogadishu see them as an invading force rather than a liberating power. This is due to a longstanding, bitter rivalry between Ethiopia - a country with a large Christian population - and mostly Muslim Somalia. The countries fought two wars in the last 45 years, and Somalia still lays claim to territories in Ethiopia.

The New York Times reports that in an effort to ease some of the tension between the Ethiopians and the Somalis, Ethiopian officers reached a truce with clan leaders in Mogadishu last week — a truce they are being accused by clan leaders of breaking by invading the city on Thursday.

Many residents now say they were better off under the Islamist administration, which briefly controlled Mogadishu last year until the Ethiopian troops invaded.

Ethiopian officers tried to defuse the situation last week by sitting down with elders of the Hawiye clan, the most powerful clan in Mogadishu and one widely believed to be fueling the insurgency. The two sides hammered out a truce, and according to Hawiye elders, the Ethiopians agreed to stay out of their neighborhoods.

But on Thursday at dawn, residents said a phalanx of Ethiopian tanks and troops rumbled into central Mogadishu. Masked insurgents rushed into the streets to greet them. Pitched battles followed, with Ethiopian helicopters firing missiles....

"The Ethiopians cheated us," said Mohammed Ali Deriyeah, a Hawiye elder. "The retaliation is going to be very bad."

The BBC reports that the prime minister of Somalia's transitional government, Mohammed Ali Ghedi, accused the media of exaggerating the scale of the recent fighting, and maintained that the purpose of the recent raids by the Ethiopians are designed to rid the city of terrorists.

"There are some insurgents in the city who have links with international terrorists and are fighting against the government and the people of Somalia - we are attacking their positions," Mr Ghedi told the BBC Network Africa programme from Saudi Arabia, where he is attending the Arab League summit.

However, the Zurich-based International Relations and Security Network (ISN) reports that tensions between Mogadishu's Hawiye clan and the clan of interim President Abdullahi Yusuf have contributed to the recent violence.

The government accuses remnants of the ousted Islamist movement of being behind the recent spate of attacks on Somali government and Ethiopian troops in the country. However, further complicating matters, the leaders of a major clan, the Hawiye, which inhabits southern Somalia, including the capital, say they are dissatisfied with the government and that their militias are resisting its attempt to spread its authority throughout the capital. The Hawiye elders accuse the government forces of being exclusively from the president's clan, the Darood, and are trying to disarm them.

The government had expressed reluctance over the ceasefire signed between Ethiopian troops and Hawiye elders last week, and continues to accuse the clan leaders of serving as a cover for the Islamists – an accusation vehemently denied by clan elders.

Clan spokesman Diriye told local radio that interim President Abdullahi Yusuf was seeking to subjugate Somali clans to his own clan. He said the interim government's soldiers were from the northeastern self-autonomous region of Puntland where Yusuf had been regional president before being elected president of Somalia.

ISN also reports that the Mogadishu offensive comes almost three weeks before a national reconciliation congress is to be held in the capital "to reconcile different clans in the country," although many are doubtful that the violence will subside in time for the conference to take place.

In other news, an AP report says a new White House study finds that despite the ouster of the UIC, Somalia is still a safe haven for terrorists, and contributes "to a growing security threat throughout East Africa."

The report, submitted to key congressional committees, said several al-Qaida operatives have used Somalia as a base of operations, including the perpetrators of the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa and the 2002 attacks against an Israeli airliner and a hotel in Kenya.

"The individuals pose an immediate threat to both Somali and international interests in the Horn of Africa," the report said.

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