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Ethiopia prepares for war with Somali Islamists

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ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia -- Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said yesterday that his country has completed preparations for war with neighboring Somalia's powerful Islamist movement, alongside faltering peace efforts.

Mr. Meles told parliament that the Islamists, who have declared holy war on Ethiopian troops deployed to Somalia to protect the weak internationally backed government, were a "clear and present danger" to his country.

Shortly after Mr. Meles' announcement, the Islamists said in Mogadishu that they were ready to defend themselves from a "reckless and war-thirsty" Ethiopia and invited a U.S. delegation to visit in an apparent bid to cool the situation.

"This group represents a clear threat to Ethiopia," Mr. Meles told Ethiopian lawmakers in Addis Ababa, which denies U.N. claims that they sent thousands of troops to Somalia but acknowledges sending military advisers.

"When any country faces that type of danger, it has the full right to defend itself against this threat," Mr. Meles said. "To exercise this right, we have been preparing for this kind of response, because it is our responsibility. The government has completed that kind of preparations."

However, opposition lawmakers refused to accept a motion endorsing the prime minister's statements, calling it tantamount to a declaration of war and forcing a delay in the vote in order for revisions to be made.

"This motion needs to be amended and negotiated with the parties' representatives in the parliament," said Beyene Petros, an opposition member of parliament.

Mainly Christian Ethiopia has watched with growing concern the rise on its southeastern border of the Islamists, who seized Mogadishu in June and now control most of southern and central Somalia.

With a large ethnic Somali population, Ethiopia fears radicalization of its sizable Muslim minority by the Islamists, some of whom are accused of links to al Qaeda, who have imposed strict Shariah law in areas they control.

In Mogadishu, senior members of the Supreme Islamic Council of Somalia (SICS) met to plot strategy after Mr. Meles' address, delivered after the Islamists said they ambushed several Ethiopian military convoys near the Somali government seat of Baidoa.

"If Ethiopia is ready for war, we are very ready for the defense of our country," said SICS spokesman Abdurahim Ali Muddey. "But we urge Ethiopia to refrain from its reckless, war-thirsty behavior. We are not a threat to Ethiopia, but the presence of its troops in our homeland is a serious security risk to Somalia as well as Ethiopia."

On Sunday and Tuesday, the Islamists said holy warriors had carried out attacks on Ethiopian military targets across Baidoa, the only government-held city, about 155 miles northwest of Mogadishu.

Mr. Muddey said the Islamists invited the United States to send a delegation to Mogadishu "to see what is happening in Somalia" and hear in person their objections to a U.S. proposal that would allow peacekeepers.

The United States accuses some in the Islamist movement of links with al Qaeda and harboring suspects in the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

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