Ethiopia, Somalia militia at war

Updated: 2006-12-25 09:08

MOGADISHU, Somalia - Ethiopia sent fighter jets into Somalia and bombed several towns Sunday in a dramatic attack on Somalia's powerful Islamic movement, and Ethiopia's prime minister said his country had been "forced to enter a war."

Islamic Courts soldiers' bodies lie near Idale, Somalia, Sunday, Dec.24, 2006. [AP]
It was the first time Ethiopia acknowledged its troops were fighting in support of Somalia's UN-backed interim government even though witnesses had been reporting their presence for weeks in an escalating battle that threatens to engulf the Horn of Africa region.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi went on television to announce that his country was at war with the Islamic movement that wants to rule neighboring Somalia by the Quran.

"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," Meles said a few hours after his military attacked the Islamic militia with fighter jets and artillery.

No reliable casualty reports were immediately available.

Ethiopia, a largely Christian nation, supports Somalia's interim government, which has been losing ground to the Council of Islamic Courts for months.

"They are cowards," said Sheik Mohamoud Ibrahim Suley, an official with the Islamic movement, which controls most of southern Somalia. "They are afraid of the face-to-face war and resorted to airstrikes. I hope God will help us shoot down their planes."

Eritrea, a bitter rival of Ethiopia, is backing the Islamic militia, and experts fear the conflict could draw in the volatile Horn of Africa region, which lies close to the Saudi Arabian peninsula and has seen a rise in Islamic extremism. A recent UN report said 10 nations have been illegally supplying arms and equipment to both sides in Somalia.

People living along Somalia's coast have reported seeing hundreds of foreign Muslims entering the country in answer to calls from the Islamic militia to fight a holy war against Ethiopia.

The Islamic group's often severe interpretation of Islam raises memories of Afghanistan's Taliban regime, which was ousted by a U.S.-led campaign for harboring Osama bin Laden. The US says four al-Qaida leaders blamed for the 1998 bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania have become leaders in Somalia's Islamic militia.

The Islamic movement drove secular Somali warlords supported by the US out of the capital, Mogadishu, last summer and have seized most of the southern half of the country, which has not had an effective government since a longtime dictatorship was toppled in 1991.

The interim Somali administration, formed two years ago with UN help, been unable to exert any wide control and its influence is now confined to the area around the western city of Baidoa.

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