Home | News    Saturday 30 December 2006

Somali, Ethiopian forces head South to fight Islamists

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Dec 30, 2006 (MOGADISHU) — Several thousand Somali and Ethiopian troops were headed to the southern seaport stronghold of a rival Islamic force, a government official said Saturday, setting the scene for a final showdown.

With 16 Ethiopian tanks, armored vehicles and artillery in support, the troops were 120 kilometers (75 miles) north of the front line, where an estimated 3,000 hardcore Islamic fighters are wedged between the Kenyan border and the Indian Ocean.

"We are going to advance from different directions to try and encircle the city and force the Islamic group to minimize the loss of civilians," government spokesman Abdirahman Dinari told the AP.

The interim government and its Ethiopian allies, who accuse the Islamic group of harboring al-Qaida terrorists, hope to close the net before they can slip out of the country. In the last 10 days the Islamic group has been forced out of the capital, Mogadishu, and other key towns in the face of heavy Ethiopian-led attacks.

Ethiopia has cooperated closely with the United States in its war on terror. The U.S. government has said four suspects in the 1998 bombings of the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania have become leaders in the Somali Islamic movement.

Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, the executive leader of the Council of Islamic Courts, the umbrella group for the Islamic movement that ruled Mogadishu for six months, pledged to continue the fight.

"I want to tell you that the Islamic courts are still alive and ready to fight against the enemy of Allah," Ahmed told residents Saturday in a speech in the coastal port of Kismayo, where their forces are now based.

"We left Mogadishu in order to prevent bloodshed in the capital, but that does not mean we lost the holy war against our enemy," he added.

Meanwhile, Somalia’s president flew to the outskirts of Mogadishu aboard an Ethiopian military helicopter Saturday, as his government moved ahead with plans to move to the Somali capital.

President Abdullahi Yusuf met with key Somali elders in a bid to smooth the takeover of the city, 48 hours after the Islamic movement’s fighters abandoned the capital. He also pledged to bring more troops to help secure the region.

Although his U.N.-backed government was established in 2004, it has never had control over Mogadishu or many other parts of the lawless country until Ethiopia stepped in. His transitional government has been forced to base itself in Baidoa, a dusty agricultural town 250 kilometers (150 miles) away.

He has vowed to crush the Islamic movement with the help of Ethiopian muscle.

Many in overwhelmingly Muslim Somalia are skeptical of the government’s reliance on neighboring Ethiopia, a traditional rival with a large Christian population and one of Africa’s largest armies. Ethiopia and Somalia fought a bloody war in 1977.

Yusuf said Ethiopian troops would stay in Somalia as "the government is not up to the level of taking back the entire country overnight." He vowed to pursue those still willing to fight for the Islamic group.

(AP)

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