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Monday, December 25, 2006

Ethiopian jets bomb Mogadishu Airport

Ethiopian fighter jets bombed Mogadishu International Airport in the middle of Somalia's capital Monday, in the first direct attack on the headquarters of an Islamic movement attempting to wrest power from the internationally-recognized government.

There was no immediate information about casualties, but several buildings used by the Islamic forces were hit. Islamic officials were not immediately available for comment.

Ethiopia's prime minister announced Sunday night that his country was "forced to enter a war" with Somalia's Council of Islamic Courts after the group declared holy war on Ethiopia.

The Russian-made jets swept low over the capital at midmorning, dropping three bombs on Somalia's main airport, which just recently reopened after the Islamic takeover of Mogadishu.

Somali troops, backed by Ethiopian soldiers, captured a key border town early Monday and residents celebrated as government soldiers moved through the town and headed south in pursuit of fleeing Islamic militiamen, a Somali officer said.

Islamic fighters left the town of Belet Weyne, on the Somali-Ethiopian border along the Shabelle river, overnight after Ethiopian fighter jets bombed Islamic positions Sunday, residents said.

Col. Abdi Yusuf Ahmed, a Somali government army commander, told The Associated Press that his forces entered Belet Weyne early Monday without a shot fired. He held up his telephone and a reporter could hear street celebrations.

Ahmed said his troops would pursue the Islamic fighters south on one of Somalia's key roads.

Heavy artillery and mortar fire continued to echo through the main government town of Baidoa on Monday, said Mohammed Sheik Ali, a resident reached by telephone. Government and Ethiopian troops were attempting to push back Islamic forces just 20 kilometers (12 miles) south of Baidoa.

Sunday marked the first time Ethiopia has acknowledged that its troops are fighting in Somalia, though witnesses had been reporting their presence for weeks. Ethiopia supports Somalia's U.N.-backed government, which has been losing ground to the Islamists since June.

"Our defense force has been forced to enter a war to defend against the attacks from extremists and anti-Ethiopian forces and to protect the sovereignty of the land," Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said in a television address Sunday night. "Our intention is to win this war as soon as possible."

Ethiopia, a largely Christian nation that fears the emergence of a neighboring Islamic state, dropped bombs on several towns held by the Council of Islamic Courts and its soldiers used artillery and tanks elsewhere. No reliable casualty reports were immediately available.

Experts fear the conflict in Somalia could engulf the already volatile Horn of Africa. A recent U.N. report said 10 countries have been illegally supplying arms and equipment to both sides of the conflict and using Somalia as a proxy battlefield. Residents living along Somalia's coast have seen hundreds of foreign Islamic radicals entering the country to answer calls by religious leaders to fight a holy war against Ethiopia.

The Islamic group's strict and often severe interpretation of Islam raises memories of Afghanistan's Taliban regime, which was ousted by a US-led campaign for harboring Osama bin Laden. The US government says four al-Qaida leaders, believed to be behind the 1998 bombing of the US Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, have become leaders in Somalia's Islamic militia.

Major fighting broke out Tuesday night. On Sunday, Ethiopian forces fought alongside secular Somali soldiers in Dinsoor, Belet Weyne, Bandiradley and Bur Haqaba, officials said.

Ethiopia and Somalia have fought two wars over their disputed border in the past 45 years, and Islamic court leaders have repeatedly said they want to incorporate ethnic Somalis living in eastern Ethiopia, northeastern Kenya and Djibouti into a Greater Somalia.

Thousands of Somalis have fled their homes as troops loyal to the two-year-old interim administration fought Islamic fighters who had advanced on Baidoa, about 250 kilometers (140 miles) northwest of Mogadishu.

Government officials and Islamic militiamen have said hundreds of people have been killed in clashes since Tuesday, but the claims could not be independently confirmed. Aid groups put the death toll in the dozens.

Somalia has not had an effective government since warlords overthrew longtime dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991, plunging the country into chaos. The government was formed two years ago with the help of the United Nations, but has failed to assert any real control.

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