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Thursday, July 20, 2006

Somali Islamists vow holy war on Ethiopia troops

MOGADISHU (Reuters) - Somalia's Islamists vowed a "holy war" on Thursday against Ethiopian troops crossing into the Horn of Africa nation, while Addis Ababa threatened to crush any attack on the interim government it supports.

The aggressive rhetoric, combined with this week's military moves on both sides, have raised fears of a new war in Somalia, deprived of central rule since the 1991 ouster of a dictator.

Ethiopian soldiers in military trucks drove into the provincial town of Baidoa on Thursday, witnesses said, a day after Islamist militia advanced within 35 kms (22 miles) of the government's temporary provincial base.

"The risk of full-scale war increases by the day," said John Prendergast, of the International Crisis Group think-tank.

Islamists took the capital Mogadishu from U.S.-backed warlords last month and are threatening the authority of a transitional administration formed in 2004 to steer the nation from anarchy to peace.

Sheikh Mukhtar Robow, a senior Islamist in charge of defense, said some 20 military vehicles from Ethiopia had crossed into Somalia at Dollow on Wednesday.

"God willing, we will remove the Ethiopians in our country and wage a jihadi war against them," he told reporters.

Analysts believe Addis Ababa has sent up to 5,000 troops into Somalia, and is massing more on the border, to deter any more Islamist advances.

"Some Ethiopian troops arrived during the day," said Baidoa taxi driver Hassan Mohamed. "On my way out of town I saw some military vehicles and I hear there are more in Luuq near the border."

Addis Ababa termed the jihad call "foolish and cheap propaganda" aimed at winning support from Muslim states.

"The Islamists' agenda is to topple the legally constituted Federal Transitional Government of Somalia and destabilize Ethiopia," added Information Ministry spokesman Zemedhun Tekle.

Ethiopia denied incursions into Somalia but threatened to crush any Islamist bid to take Baidoa or cross the border -- comments that prompted a call for restraint from Washington.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said on Thursday the so-called Contact Group, that includes the United States and European countries, planned to meet soon to discuss ways of avoiding an escalation of violence in Somalia.


Analysts and Somali sources say Somalia's interim government has little military strength, beyond a small contingent loyal to President Abdullahi Yusuf, who were boosted by the recent arrival in Baidoa of several hundred fighters from defeated warlords.

In a war, the government would rely on Ethiopian support.

"Yusuf is using the Ethiopians as a threat. He doesn't really want a battle -- yet," said one Somalia expert.

"The Islamists have vastly superior military capacity at the moment, especially with the help they're getting from Eritrea."

Nominally Christian-led Ethiopia, which condemns the Islamist leaders as "terrorists," is fearful of having a hardline Muslim state on its doorstep.

It is also anxious about possible Islamist aspirations to establish a "Greater Somalia" which would incorporate Ethiopia's southeastern Ogaden region inhabited by ethnic Somalis.

Ethiopia sounded the alarm after Islamist militia moved from Mogadishu to Buur Hakaba -- just 60 km (37 miles) from Baidoa -- on Wednesday. The Islamists returned in the evening, saying they went to collect 150 soldiers switching sides from Yusuf's force.

The commander of those soldiers said they were disgruntled at lack of pay. "We met him (Yusuf) on Sunday and told him we will be leaving since his government failed to honor its promises," Garad Fiidow Gabow told Reuters in Mogadishu.

The soldiers carried new AK-47 rifles.

Interim government spokesman Abdirahman Dinari, however, said soldiers had left due to indiscipline.

Islamist defense chief Robow said he could have gone on to Baidoa, but drew back to avoid confrontation and harming Arab-League brokered talks with the government.
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