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Saturday, December 30, 2006

Ethiopia Advances on Somali Islamists’ Last City

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia, Dec. 30 – A phalanx of Ethiopian tanks and armored personnel carriers chugged toward the last city occupied by Somalia’s diminished Islamist movement, witnesses said today, setting the stage for one final major battle.

According to residents along Somalia’s coast, the Ethiopian troops, along with soldiers from Somalia’s transitional government, were preparing to seize Kismayo, a port city near the Kenyan border where the Islamist leaders have holed up.

Sheilk Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, a high-ranking cleric, vowed not to go down without a fight.

"I want to tell you that the Islamic courts are still alive and ready to fight against the enemy of Allah," Mr. Ahmed told residents of Kismayo in a speech today. "We left Mogadishu in order to prevent bloodshed in the capital, but that does not mean we lost the holy war against our enemy.”

Mr. Ahmed called on Somalis to begin an anti-Ethiopian insurgency, and already several masked gunmen have surfaced on Mogadishu’s streets.

Diplomats in Kenya, though, said that they were talking to moderate representatives of the Islamic movement today, trying to persuade them to back down.

In Mogadishu, the presence of Ethiopian troops continued to spark violence, with supporters of the Ethiopians battling street by street against the remaining Islamist partisans. Gunshots rang out, men and women battled with sticks and rocks and the thick black smoke of burning barricades lifted into the air.

Just two days ago, in a stunning reversal of fortune, Somalia’s transitional government, with the muscle of the Ethiopian military, reclaimed Mogadishu, driving out the Islamist movement which had ruled large swaths of Somalia. More than a thousand people have been killed in the fighting and Somalia’s leaders now face the daunting task of trying to piece together a country that has not had a central government for 15 years.

Sheikhdon Salad Elmi, the director of a large hospital in Mogadishu’s Medina neighborhood, said the prospects of stability depend on how long the Ethiopian troops stay.

“I think it’s naïve for them to go right now,” Dr. Elmi said. “We need them for security. But they are very visible and most people don’t like them. The longer they stay, the more resentment that will come.”

Somalia has fought -- and lost – two wars with Ethiopia but never before have Ethiopian troops occupied the capital.

“It’s very humiliating,” Dr. Elmi said.

Ethiopian officials have said that they plan to withdraw troops in a matter of weeks but not before neutralizing the Islamists, who declared a holy war against Ethiopia, Somalia’s larger, more powerful and Christian-dominated neighbor.

One week ago, the Ethiopian military, with tacit American approval, unleashed a fierce counterattack against the Islamists, bombarding their positions with jet fighters and pushing tanks deep into Somali territory.

Since then, the Islamists have been steadily on the run, their teenage troops no match for a well-equipped modern army.
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