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.
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.
An Islamic Courts soldier patrols Mogadishu airport after the
Ethiopian air force hit Mogadishu airport, Monday, Dec. 25, 2006.
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 ¡ª 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
Despite this friction, the Somali government ¡ª which has failed to assert any
real control since it was formed two years ago ¡ª relies on its neighbor's
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.