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Saturday, December 23, 2006

Somali Islamists urge Muslims to join war on Ethiopia

MOGADISHU, Dec 23 (Reuters) - Somali Islamists urged foreign Muslim fighters on Saturday to join their "holy war" against Ethiopia as Islamist forces and pro-Somali government troops fired artillery and rockets across a frontline for a fifth day.

"Our country is open to Muslims worldwide. Let them fight in Somalia and wage jihad, and God willing, attack Addis Ababa," defence chief Yusuf Mohamed Siad "Inda'ade" said in the Islamists' first threat to take the fight to Ethiopia's capital.

Both sides claim to have killed hundreds since fighting began on Tuesday, while aid agencies say dozens have died.

The most sustained fighting to date between the two sides has heightened fears of a major regional war that would ensnare Horn of Africa rivals Ethiopia and Eritrea and trigger possible suicide bombings in east Africa.

The Islamists accuse Christian-led Ethiopia, a key U.S. ally in its war on terrorism, of invading Somalia and deny claims by the United States that the group is led by an al Qaeda cell.

"We told the world to stop this problem," Inda'ade, a hardliner known for belligerent rhetoric, told reporters in the Islamist stronghold of Mogadishu. "We told them to do something before it becomes a blazing fire that would engulf the region."

Escalating tension prompted medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres to withdraw its international personnel, although local staff were still running MSF's programmes.

"The operations are ongoing and we're ready to take war wounded from either side," MSF head of mission for Somalia, Dave Michalski, told Reuters.

The Islamists took power in Mogadishu and a swathe of southern Somalia in June, challenging the Western-backed interim government's aim to restore central rule for the first time since dictator Mohamed Siad Barre was toppled in 1991.

Diplomats fear the latest Islamist rhetoric is intended to bait government backer Ethiopia into outright military action.

Ethiopia has said its patience is running out and the country's parliament has already approved plans to respond to what it sees as a planned invasion by the Islamists.

Addis Ababa on Saturday poured scorn on the call for foreign jihadist support, saying it proved the "extremism" of a movement Ethiopia accuses of being run by al Qaeda-linked militants.


One resident saw Islamist fighters pushing towards Daynunay, the government's forward military base about 20 km (12 miles) southeast of its encircled base at Baidoa.

"This morning, I heard sounds of rockets being fired from the frontline," Hassan Yusuf added. He said he saw three dead Ethiopian soldiers taken by Islamist fighters to a village close to Daynunay on Friday, while wounded Islamist fighters were being treated in nearby Buur Hakaba.

Aid workers also reported seeing Ethiopian helicopters taking wounded Ethiopians home for treatment.

The Islamists said they seized Tiyeglow late on Friday, a pro-government town some 70 km (45 miles) northeast of Baidoa.

One regional analyst said the Islamists' call could appeal to Muslims worldwide resentful of U.S. foreign policy.

"What makes it potentially troubling is the position the U.S. has taken in support of the government and Ethiopia, which means the appeal is likely to resonate more widely," Nairobi-based Somalia specialist Matt Bryden told Reuters.

Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden has warned foreign powers against sending any soldiers to Somalia and encouraged jihadists to join any war against foreign troops.

Islamist fighters, many linked to al Qaeda, are operating in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The African Union added its voice on Saturday to calls from the United Nations, Western nations and aid agencies for fighting to stop and for peace talks to resume.

Somali Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi said the government was ready in principle for that, but criticised the Islamists for "attacking" government positions.

Military experts estimate Ethiopia has 15,000-20,000 troops in Somalia, while Eritrea has about 2,000 behind the Islamists.

Asmara denies the accusation, while Addis Ababa admits only having a few hundred military trainers in Baidoa. (Additional reporting by Tsegaye Tadesse in Addis Ababa and Bryson Hull and Nicolo Gnecchi in Nairobi)
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