Somalia standoff looms

Ethiopia, government troops drive Islamic fighters from key areas and into Mogadishu

December 28, 2006|By Edmund Sanders and Abukar Albadri | Edmund Sanders and Abukar Albadri,Los Angeles Times

MOGADISHU, Somalia -- Troops from Ethiopia and Somalia's weak transitional government cornered Islamic fighters yesterday in their stronghold of Mogadishu, setting the stage for a possible showdown over Somalia's seaside capital.

A weeklong assault led by Ethiopia's military, which sent nearly 4,000 troops into Somalia at the request of the transitional government, has resulted in a sudden reversal of fortunes for the Islamists, who have lost nearly all the territory they had seized during the past six months.

Yesterday, Islamists lost two more key areas, the town of Jowhar and the port city of Kismayo, officials said. Ethiopian troops moved within 18 miles of Mogadishu.

As panicked residents hoarded food, water and fuel in expectation of an attack, the African Union chairman called for Ethiopian troops and other foreign elements to withdraw from Somalia. The Arab League called for a immediate cease-fire.

Somalia, in the Horn of Africa, has not had an effective central government for 15 years. The U.N.-backed transitional government has been trying to establish its authority over the entire country, but the Islamists have presented a major challenge to it.

The Islamic Courts Union, an alliance of religious leaders, seized Mogadishu from warlords in June and gradually extended its control over much of the country.

Ethiopian and U.S. officials have accused the Islamist alliance of being controlled by international terrorists, including al-Qaida. Critics said the Courts Union planned to install a Taliban-style government in Somalia and use it as a springboard to spread religious extremism in Africa.

Islamists deny the allegations, saying they are victims of Western and anti-Muslim propaganda.

Ethiopian and transitional government officials insisted that the offensive would continue until the Islamists surrendered. "The fighting will not end as long as one of the terrorists remains in Somalia," said Barre Adan Shire, defense minister for the transitional government.

Somali government officials said they had no immediate plans to invade the capital, a campaign they said could inflict heavy civilian deaths on the city of 2 million. Instead, Ethiopians and transitional government troops encircled Mogadishu, shut down the seaport and airport, and are pressuring Islamic leaders to give up.

"We are cutting off the roads and begging them to lay down their weapons," said Abdikarim Farah, the transitional government's ambassador to Ethiopia. He said the United States was among the countries helping to seal off access along the Indian Ocean coast. "We will take over Mogadishu peacefully. I assure you that. How can they hold?"

U.S. military officials acknowledged that they have been conducting operations to interdict terrorists in the seas surrounding the Horn of Africa but pointed out that those missions have been in place for several years. A military official said there is a Navy presence off the coast of Somalia, but it is aimed primarily at anti-piracy efforts and has been in place for some time.

Inside Mogadishu, there were signs that the Islamist alliance was beginning to unravel. Islamists distributed guns to civilians, urging them to help fight off an attack. Some Islamist fighters were rejoining their former clan-based militias, while others shaved their beards and removed Islamic head caps in an effort to blend in with the population.

Thousands of people fled the city. Those who remained huddled at home or attempted to stock up on essentials. Public buses stopped running. Concerns over a prolonged standoff have nearly doubled prices for flour and sugar.

Much of Ethiopia's campaign, including the capture of nearly two dozen Somali cities over the past week, occurred without a fight because Islamist troops retreated in advance of Ethiopian tanks, jets and troops.

But fierce battles over a few key cities are believed to have left hundreds dead on both sides. Exact casualty figures could not be confirmed, but the International Red Cross estimated that 800 were wounded in the past week.

Shire said more than 1,000 Islamists have been killed, including 300 foreigners.

Edmund Sanders and Abukar Albadri write for the Los Angeles Times.

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