- The Washington Times - Monday, August 10, 2009

CAPE TOWN, South Africa | As it boosts aid to Somalia’s weak interim government to fight an al Qaeda-linked Islamist militia, the Obama administration is grasping for ways to cut off what it says is one of the militant group’s main supply lines — the tiny Red Sea state of Eritrea.

The enigmatic and authoritarian nation has emerged as a principal player in the conflict in lawless Somalia, where the enfeebled government is struggling for survival against the extremist al-Shabab faction.

U.S., U.N. and other investigators say the Eritrean government is funneling money, weapons and other supplies to al-Shabab, which Western intelligence agencies regard as a growing regional and international threat bent on using Somalia as a base to export terrorism abroad. Eritrea emerged out of internecine conflict, seceding from Ethiopia in 1993 after a 30-year guerrilla war.

Eritrea, a Somalia neighbor about the size of Pennsylvania with a population of only 3.6 million, has consistently denied the charges. Its accusers are equally adamant. The United States, in particular, has been warning the country that it would face sanctions if it doesn’t stop supporting the extremists. The African Union has also called for sanctions to be imposed.

After pledging last week to expand U.S. support, including military aid, to the beleaguered Somali government and an undermanned and underequipped African peacekeeping force protecting it, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton issued a stern new warning to Eritrea.

“It is long past time for Eritrea to cease and desist its support for al-Shabab,” she said at a news conference with Somali President Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed. “We are making it very clear that their actions are unacceptable. We intend to take action if they do not cease.”

Washington has issued similar tough talk since the administration of President George W. Bush, but has rarely followed up on its warnings to Eritrea.

A senior U.S. official said an Obama administration review of whether Eritrea’s activities in Somalia meet the legal requirements for such a designation is still under way and could be completed soon.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan E. Rice told Congress last month that Eritrea’s backing for al-Shabab is “unacceptable, and we will not tolerate it.” At the same time, she said the United States wants to engage Eritrea and was hopeful the isolated African nation would respond to American entreaties.

But so far, Eritrea has flatly rejected U.S. allegations of support for extremists and has ignored the administration’s offers of better relations.

Although it denies helping the extremists, Eritrea sheltered one hard-line Somali Islamist leader, Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys, for months in self-exile before he returned to Mogadishu, Somalia, in April. Sheik Aweys is on U.S. and U.N. lists of individuals with links to al Qaeda.

Sheik Aweys denies ties with al Qaeda, but said in June that he was working to unite his Islamic Party with al-Shabab, which the United States says is harboring at least two al Qaeda operatives involved in the 1998 bombings of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

Eritrea has also made clear its disdain for the Somali government, which is not only backed by the United Nations, the United States and the African Union, but by Eritrea’s longtime enemy Ethiopia.

Many think that Eritrea and Ethiopia — who have been feuding over their border since Eritrea gained independence from Ethiopia — are fighting a proxy war in Somalia. Ethiopia invaded Eritrea in 2005 to dislodge al-Shabab’s predecessor, the Islamic Courts Union, from power.

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