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Monday, September 25, 2006

Tensions, rhetoric flare in embattled East Africa

MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP) -- Islamic militia in the seaport of Kismayo opened fire Monday on thousands protesting the fundamentalists' takeover of the southern town, and witnesses said a teenager was killed.

Meanwhile, a top Islamic leader said the presence of Ethiopian troops in western Somalia was tantamount to "a declaration of war."

The shootings occurred in Kismayo, a day after Islamic militia peacefully took over the town, which is Somalia's third-largest.

Islamic militia with white bands on their heads opened fire on the protesters, killing a 13-year-old boy, witnesses said. Sporadic gunfire could also be heard in other parts of the town, about 260 miles southwest of Mogadishu.

"They are ... al Qaeda and we do not want them," said Halimo Mohamed, one of the protesters in Kismayo. "Theirs is not a religion. They are terrorists."

While some residents have fled Kismayo, others have welcomed the Islamic militia.

As it established authority in the capital and across much of the south starting in June, the fundamentalist group's strict interpretation of Islam has raised memories of Afghanistan's Taliban. The United States has accused the Islamic group of sheltering suspects in the 1998 al-Qaida bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden has portrayed Somalia as a battleground in his war on the U.S.

Witnesses saw about 300 Ethiopian troops in a convoy of 50 armored trucks in Bardaale, 40 miles west of Baidoa, the only town held by the weak government. Ethiopian troops have intervened in neighboring western Somalia in the past to support the administration.

Islamic forces believe Ethiopian troops aim to cut off their route between Kismayo and Mogadishu.

"The incursion of Ethiopian troops into Somali territories is a declaration of war on Somalia," Sheik Yusuf Indahaadde, national security chairman for the Islamic group, told The Associated Press by telephone. "We call on the international community to urge Ethiopia to withdraw its troops from Somalia. If that doesn't happen, the consequences of insecurity created by Ethiopia will spread to neighboring countries and to East Africa as a whole."

Ethiopia repeated earlier denials its troops were in Somalia. "This is categorically false," foreign affairs spokesman Solomon Abebe told the AP. "No Ethiopian troops have crossed the border into Somalia."

He suggested that officials of the Islamic Courts, by occupying Kismayo, had violated a peace agreement and was using the issue of Ethiopian troops "to hide their mistakes."

However, a Western diplomat said last week that following an assassination attempt against Somali President Abdullahi Yusuf in which 11 people were killed, Ethiopia offered to send a battalion of troops to Somalia to protect the U.N.-backed government and its ally Yusuf. No one has claimed responsibility, but the Somali government said the attack was by al Qaeda.

As fears of a regional conflict soared, Somalia's radical Islamic militia acknowledged its fighters were being bolstered by foreign Muslims.

Hassan Turki, leader of the Islamic militia, told a pro-Islamic courts demonstration earlier Monday that foreign fighters were helping their cause.

"You will see foreigners among us; they are your brothers in Islam," Turki said. President Bush "used NATO troops to attack Muslims. So is it logical not to call on our Muslim brothers?" he asked the cheering crowd.

The crowd replied, "We also call upon Muslims!"

Turki, who is rarely seen in public, was born in Ethiopia near the Somali border in 1944, and is on U.S. and U.N. lists of suspected terrorists for having alleged ties to al Qaeda.

But some Somalis have welcomed the order that the Islamic group has brought to a country with no effective national government since 1991, when warlords overthrew dictator Mohamed Siad Barre and then turned on one another.

In Nairobi, Kenya, the prime minister of Somalia's government, increasingly sidelined by the Islamic fighters, called on the U.N. to partially lift an arms embargo to allow for the deployment of African peacekeepers -- something that is fiercely opposed by the Islamic militants.

In an interview with the AP, Somali Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi said "terrorists" dominate the Islamic group. He urged the international community to "act very soon."

The U.N. Security Council was expected to meet in New York later Monday to discuss a partial lifting of an arms embargo that has been in place on Somalia since 1992. Gedi said lifting the embargo would allow for the peacekeeping deployment, which he said was necessary to stop the Islamic group's advance. The African Union has endorsed a plan by eastern African states to deploy peacekeepers in Somalia to protect Gedi's weak, internationally recognized government.
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