- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 24, 2006

MOGADISHU, Somalia — Ethiopia sent fighter jets into Somalia and bombed several towns yesterday in a dramatic attack on Somalia’s powerful Islamist movement. Ethiopia’s prime minister said his country had been “forced to enter a war.”

It was the first time Ethiopia acknowledged its troops were fighting in support of Somalia’s U.N.-backed interim government even though witnesses had been reporting their presence for weeks in an escalating battle that threatens to engulf the Horn of Africa region.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi went on television to announce that his country was at war with the Islamist movement that wants to rule neighboring Somalia by the Koran.

“Our defense force has been forced to enter a war to defend [against] the attacks from extremists and anti-Ethiopian forces and to protect the sovereignty of the land,” Mr. Meles said a few hours after his military attacked the Islamist militia with fighter jets and artillery.

No reliable casualty reports were immediately available.

Ethiopia, a largely Christian nation, supports Somalia’s interim government, which has been losing ground to the Council of Islamic Courts for months.

“They are cowards,” said Sheik Mohamoud Ibrahim Suley, an official with the Islamist movement, which controls most of southern Somalia. “They are afraid of the face-to-face war and resorted to air strikes. I hope God will help us shoot down their planes.”

Major fighting broke out Tuesday night but had tapered off before yesterday’s battles began before dawn and continued for about 10 hours.

Government officials and Islamist militiamen have said hundreds of people have been killed in the fighting since Tuesday, but the claims could not be independently confirmed. Aid groups put the death toll in the dozens.

Ethiopian Information Minister Berhan Hailu said before Mr. Meles’ announcement that Ethiopian soldiers were fighting alongside Somali government soldiers in Dinsoor, Belet Weyne, Bandiradley and Bur Haqaba.

Witnesses said a major road and an Islamist recruiting center were bombed in Belet Weyne, and 12 Ethiopian soldiers were reportedly captured nearby.

“We saw 12 blindfolded men and were told they were Ethiopian prisoners captured in the battle,” said Abdi Fodere, a businessman in Belet Weyne.

Less serious fighting also was reported in Baidoa.

“I think they have met a resistance they have never dreamed of before,” interim Somali President Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed said in brief remarks as the fighting began to die down at Baidoa.

Sheik Suley said the Islamist forces had destroyed four Ethiopian tanks outside the city.

Eritrea, a bitter rival of Ethiopia, is backing the Islamist militia, and analysts fear the conflict could draw in the volatile Horn of Africa region, which lies close to the Saudi Arabian Peninsula and has seen a rise in Islamist extremism. A recent U.N. report said 10 nations have been illegally supplying arms and equipment to both sides in Somalia.

The Islamist group’s often severe interpretation of Islam raises memories of Afghanistan’s Taliban regime, which was ousted by a U.S.-led campaign for harboring Osama bin Laden. The United States says four al Qaeda leaders blamed for the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania have become leaders in Somalia’s Islamist militia.

The Islamist movement drove secular Somali warlords supported by Washington out of the capital, Mogadishu, last summer and have seized most of the southern half of the country, which has not had an effective government since a longtime dictatorship was toppled in 1991.

The interim Somali administration, formed two years ago with U.N. help, has been unable to exert any wide control, and its influence is now confined to the area around the western city of Baidoa.

Several rounds of peace talks failed to yield any lasting results.

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