Ethiopian jets bomb Somalia airports

Updated: 2006-12-26 09:29

MOGADISHU, Somalia - Ethiopian jets bombed Somalia's two main airports Monday while ground troops captured three villages and a strategic border town, lending Somalia's internationally backed government crucial military aid in its struggle against a powerful Islamic militia.

An Islamic Courts soldier patrols Mogadishu airport after the Ethiopian air force hit Mogadishu airport, Monday, Dec. 25, 2006.
An Islamic Courts soldier patrols Mogadishu airport after the Ethiopian air force hit Mogadishu airport, Monday, Dec. 25, 2006. [AP

Russian-made jets swept low over the capital at midmorning, dropping two bombs on Mogadishu International Airport, part of a major escalation in the week-old fighting. The leader of the Islamic militia, Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys, flew into the airport shortly after the attack; it was not clear if he was an intended target.

Air strikes also hit Baledogle Airport, about 35 miles outside Mogadishu.

"We heard the sound of the jets and then they pounded," said Abdi Mudey, a soldier with Somalia's Council of Islamic Courts, which has seized the capital and much of southern Somalia since June.

Somalia has not had an effective government since warlords overthrew longtime dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991, throwing the country into anarchy. Two years ago, the United Nations helped set up a central government for the arid, impoverished nation on the Horn of Africa.

But the government has not been able to extend its influence outside the city of Baidoa, where it is headquartered about 140 miles northeast of Mogadishu. The rest of the country was largely under the control of warlords until this past summer, when the Islamic militia movement pushed them aside.

Experts fear the conflict in Somalia could engulf the region. A recent UN report said 10 countries have been supplying arms and equipment to both sides of the conflict, using Somalia as a proxy battlefield. Some analysts also fear that the courts movement hopes to make Somalia a third front, after Afghanistan and Iraq, in militant Islam's war against the West.

The Islamic group's often severe interpretation of Islam is reminiscent, to some, of Afghanistan's Taliban regime - ousted by a US-led campaign in 2001 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, are now leaders in the Islamic militia.

Militia forces have surrounded Somali government forces in Baidoa, but Ethiopian-backed government troops appeared to take the initiative on Monday.

Pro-government forces drove Islamic fighters out of the key border town of Belet Weyne, then headed south in pursuit of fleeing militiamen, a Somali officer said. Government troops were enforcing a curfew of 3 p.m. to 6 a.m.

"Anyone who has a gun but is not wearing a government uniform will be targeted as a terrorist," said Aden Garase, a government soldier who was put in charge of Belet Weyne.

On Ethiopian television Monday night, the defense ministry said troops would move toward the city of Jowhar, about 55 miles from Mogadishu. Later, Ethiopia made a push in that direction, capturing the villages of Bandiradley, Adadow and Galinsor, according Yusuf Ahmed Ali, a businessman in Adadow.

No reliable casualty reports were immediately available; an Associated Press reporter who arrived shortly after the airstrike in Mogadishu saw a wounded woman being taken away.

As its military forces advanced against militia fighters, Somalia's government Monday also sought to seal its borders in order to prevent foreign Islamic militants from joining the Islamic courts forces.

Residents living along Somalia's coast have seen hundreds of militants arriving by boat, apparently in answer to calls by religious leaders to wage a holy war against Ethiopia.

It seems unlikely the government can effectively seal Somalia's 1,860-mile coastline the longest in Africa. But the closures could hamper humanitarian aid deliveries to the country, where one in five children dies before age 5 from a preventable disease.

The U.N. World Food Program airlifted several tons of food and other aid into Somalia on Monday, but had not yet been notified of any border closings, agency spokesman Peter Smerdon said.

The Islamic militia, which grew out of a network of ad hoc Muslim courts, has brought a measure of law to a lawless country: The international airport reopened in July after being closed for a decade.

But leaders of the Islamic courts movement alarmed the country's neighbors by threatening to incorporate ethnic Somalis living in eastern Ethiopia, northeastern Kenya and Djibouti into a Greater Somalia.

Many Somalis are enraged by the idea of Ethiopian involvement here because the countries have fought two wars over their disputed border in the past 45 years. Somalia is overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim, while Ethiopia has a large Christian minority.

Despite this friction, the Somali government which has failed to assert any real control since it was formed two years ago relies on its neighbor's military strength.

Earlier, Ethiopia had said it sent advisers to bolster the Somali government's outgunned military forces, but denied dispatching combat troops. The U.N., though, estimates that Ethiopia has 8,000 troops in the country.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said Sunday that his country was "forced to enter a war" with Somalia's Council of Islamic Courts after the group declared holy war on Ethiopia.

So far, Ethiopian and Somali troops have used MiG jet fighters and artillery to attack the Islamists, who have no military aircraft and can return fire only with much smaller mortars and recoilless rifles.

Prime Minister Meles has said he does not intend to keep his forces in Somalia for long, perhaps only a few weeks. He has told visiting dignitaries in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, that his goal is to damage the courts' military capabilities, take away their sense of invincibility and allow both sides to return to peace talks on even footing.

The Arab League, which has mediated several rounds of talks between the Somali government and the Islamists, called Monday for all parties involved to "immediately hold a comprehensive cease-fire."

Fighting began in earnest between the government and the militia a week ago, although it intensified Sunday.

Heavy artillery and mortar fire continued to echo through the main government town of Baidoa, said Mohammed Sheik Ali, a resident reached by telephone. The Islamists have the town surrounded on three sides, but government and Ethiopian troops were attempting to push them back.

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.

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