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Monday, October 09, 2006

Somali Islamists declare 'jihad' on Ethiopia

MOGADISHU, Oct 9 (Reuters) - Somalia's powerful Islamists on Monday declared holy war against Horn of Africa rival Ethiopia, which they accused of invading Somalia to help the government briefly seize a town controlled by pro-Islamist fighters.

Both sides confirmed the takeover of Buur Hakaba, the first military counter-strike by President Abdullahi Yusuf's interim government since the Islamists took Mogadishu in June and went on to grab much of Somalia's south.

"Starting from today, we have declared jihad against Ethiopia," Islamist leader Sheikh Sharif Ahmed told a news conference, wearing combat fatigues and clutching an AK-47 assault rifle.

Ahmed, usually viewed as a more moderate voice among the Islamists, appeared angry as he addressed reporters.

"Heavily armed Ethiopian troops have invaded Somalia. They have captured Buur Hakaba. History shows that Somalis always win when they are attacked from outside," he said.

Residents of Buur Hakaba, seen as a potential flashpoint because it had put the Islamists within 30 km (20 miles) of the government's base in Baidoa, said Ethiopian troops accompanied government fighters who took the town early on Monday.

A government militia commander in Buur Hakaba denied that, and Addis Ababa has consistently said it has not sent any soldiers except for military advisers.

The Islamists, unaccustomed to losing since their spectacular rise, said the government move was the first salvo in a longer -- and long-expected -- conflict.

Sheikh Yusuf Mohamed Siad "Inda'ade", the Islamists' defence chief, told reporters Ethiopia had 35,000 troops inside Somalia. "This is a clear war. We are telling the Ethiopians to leave our country or be responsible for whatever happens," he said.


Ethiopian Foreign Affairs ministry spokesman Ambassador Solomon Abebe dismissed the comments as the Islamists' "usual propaganda aimed at deceiving the international community".

"Ethiopia wishes to live in peace and good neighbourly relations with a united and peaceful Somali republic. It has no other ulterior motives," Solomon said.

Somali government officials were not available for comment.

The Islamists, keenly aware of Somali resistance to foreign -- especially Ethiopian -- interference often accuse the government of being a puppet of Ethiopia, the Horn's top military power.

Ethiopia says the Islamists are led by terrorists, and witnesses say its troops have crossed the border to support the government in recent weeks.

Western governments fear any incursion by Ethiopia, viewed by many Somalis as a Christian imperialist power, could give foreign jihadis a reason to flood Somalia as the newest battleground of Islam against the West.

The takeover of Buur Hakaba was short-lived. Residents said the pro-Islamist militia returned by midday after the government contingent left inexplicably.

But the Islamist defence chief Inda'ade said it appeared the government offensive had not ended and its troops intended to march to coastal city Kismayu.

The warlord alliance the Islamists removed from Kismayu last month has also threatened to take back the strategic southern port, rocked by repeated protests against the new rulers.

The Islamists have all but dashed the aspirations of the Western-backed government to restore central rule to Somalia for the first time since the 1991 ouster of a dictator.

The Islamists say sharia law is the solution to Somalia's anarchy, but critics say they harbour al Qaeda-linked militants. (Additional reporting by Sahal Abdulle in Mogadishu, Hassan Yare in Baidoa, Ibrahim Mohamed in Jowhar and Tsegaye Tadesse in Addis Ababa)
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