Conditions in Somalia growing more dire

Conflict has escalated, U.N. official reports

December 27, 2006|By Maggie Farley | Maggie Farley,Los Angeles Times

UNITED NATIONS -- The conflict between Somalia's transitional government and Islamic militants has escalated dangerously, as Islamist leaders threaten a holy war against advancing government troops and allied Ethiopian forces, a U.N. special envoy told the Security Council yesterday.

Relaying reports from U.N. representatives in the country, diplomat Francois Lonseny Fall said the situation is quickly deteriorating as government forces advance on the Islamist-held capital, Mogadishu, from two directions. The Somali soldiers have taken control of several towns in the southern part of the country that had been held by the Islamic Courts Union, Fall said, and have ordered the closure of the country's borders to keep out fighters from Eritrea and other nearby countries.

This month, the Security Council authorized a regional force to help protect the transitional government from threats by the Islamic Courts Union, despite warnings that such an intervention would spark a conflict that could drag in the entire horn of Africa. The next day, clashes escalated.

Somali government forces have been bolstered by about 4,000 troops from neighboring Ethiopia, whose Christian government fears the spread of Islamic challengers across its borders. Ethiopian airplanes bombed the Mogadishu airport Monday to stop arms and foreign fighters from reaching the Islamic militias.

The fighting has dealt a serious blow to peace talks and heightens a serious humanitarian crisis in a country that has faced 16 years of anarchy, Fall said yesterday.

"Somalia, I am afraid, will face a period of deepening conflict and heightened instability, which would be disastrous for the long-suffering people of Somalia and could also have serious consequences for the entire region," Fall said.

Somalia has not had an effective government since 1991, when warlords overthrew dictator Mohamed Siad Barre and allowed the country to fall into anarchy. The U.N. helped set up a central government in Somalia two years ago, but it has been able to control only the city of Baidoa, where it is based. In June, the Islamic militia began to take over and restore order in Mogadishu.

In an emergency meeting yesterday, the Security Council agreed that all parties should stop fighting and return to talks but failed to agree on a statement demanding that all foreign fighters leave the country. The Somali deputy ambassador insisted after the meeting that the Ethiopian troops were welcome and necessary.

"Any Ethiopian forces there were invited by the legitimate government, and they will stay as long as we need them," said the envoy, Idd Beddel Mohamed.

The Ethiopian airstrikes helped galvanize the Islamic Courts Union, an alliance of religious leaders who came together to defeat the U.S.-backed warlords this year. U.S. and Ethiopian officials say the Islamic group has ties to terrorist groups, including al-Qaida.

Maggie Farley writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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