Ethiopian troops return to Somalia

Less than a year after fleeing in the face of an Islamist insurgency, Ethiopian forces have come back to help prevent a moderate government from collapsing at the hands of militant Islamists.

Rich Clabaugh/Staff

With or without an international mandate, Ethiopian forces have entered Somali territory to back up a fast-failing Somali government.

Sources close to Western embassies in Nairobi confirmed news reports that Ethiopian troops have taken positions in the Central Somali town of Beledweyne, and that Ethiopian troops were also active in the Gelgadud region north of the capital of Mogadishu. Kenyan forces, too, are reportedly amassing along the Somali border as a defensive measure, in what Kenya's foreign minister described in a press conference as a matter of "national security."

The intervention – officially denied by the Ethiopian government – comes as Somalia's parliament speaker, Sheik Aden Mohamed Nor Madobe, sent an urgent call Saturday for military intervention by Somalia's neighbors within the next 24 hours. At present, pro-government militias and a 3,000-strong contingent of African Union peacekeepers control a few city blocks around the presidential palace in Mogadishu, along with the airport and seaport. The rest is firmly in the hands of hardline Islamist militias.

"Mogadishu is almost under the total control of Al Shabab and Hizbul Islam," says an analyst close to Western embassies in Nairobi. "It is unpredictable, due to the nature of clan politics. Nobody knows who is in charge where. Shabab and Hizbul Islam have the upper hand, but there are rumors that the US wants to send ammunition in to the government, but they don't know who to give it to. There is the question of loyalty" among the various militia commanders.

Past foreign interventions haven't gone well

Foreign interventions are a tricky matter in Somalia. America's intervention, as part of a UN peacekeeping force to protect aid supplies in the early 1990s, ultimately collapsed because of a failed effort to take on warlords opposed to the government. Ethiopia's two-year intervention in support of the government of President Abdullahi Yusuf ended in December 2008, and Mr. Yusuf's government fell just days afterward. Yet the risks of doing nothing, and allowing Somalia's current Western-friendly government to fall to Islamic militants with links to Al Qaeda appears to be forcing Ethiopia and Kenya to respond forcefully, no matter the cost.

But militant Islamists vowed to attack any foreign forces who intervene.

"We are sending our clear warning to the neighboring countries.... Send your troops to our holy soil if you [want] to take them back inside coffins," Al Shabab spokesman Sheik Ali Mohamed Rage told a press conference Sunday in Mogadishu.

'Preemptive' action?

Intervention now "would be more of a preemptive position to neutralize the Islamists," says Paula Roque, an expert on the Horn of Africa region for the Institute for Security Studies in Tshwane (Pretoria). "Since the 1990s attacks [on US embassies] in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam, we know that Al Qaeda has been in the region anyway. But we might be seeing a hybrid in the region, with battle-hardened Shabab forces and highly trained insurgents from Central Asia."

Security experts say that the influx of foreign fighters into Somalia have created a more credible regional threat, not just to Somalia but to all of its neighbors. "We are getting reports that perhaps 1,000 trained Al Qaeda insurgents have come to Somalia, along with mid-level commanders," says Ms. Roque. "With Al Shabab in control of southern Somalia, it might be viable for Al Qaeda to have a base of operations, which they haven't had before."

Fresh fighting

After a brief period of back-channel negotiation between the Sharif government and Sheikh Aweys, organized by clan elders, fighting broke out anew over the weekend. Clashes in the central parts of Mogadishu claimed the lives of at least 20 in the past two days, and wounded some 60 others.

The best evidence of a new foreign Islamist presence in Somalia are the string of high-level assassinations, most recently the suicide-bombing of Security Minister Omar Hashi in the central town of Beledweyne, and the attempted assassination of Interior Minister Sheikh Abdulkadir Ali Omar. The rising use of suicide attacks has even drawn the criticism of some top Islamist militia commanders, including Aweys, the leader of Hizbul Islam.

Al Shabab spokesman Sheikh Hassan Yakub said that Shabab took credit for the killing of the government's Security Minister, a man credited with organizing the defense of Mogadishu.

Sheikh Yakub also threatened to take its war all the way to the high-rises of Nairobi if Kenya intervened in Somalia. "We promise to attack Nairobi if the Kenyan government does not stop attempts to interfere in Somalia," he said.

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