- The Washington Times - Monday, December 25, 2006

MOGADISHU, Somalia — Ethiopian jets bombed Somalia’s two main airports yesterday while ground troops captured three villages and a strategic border town, lending Somalia’s internationally backed government crucial military aid in its struggle against a powerful Islamic militia.

Russian-made jets swept low over the capital at midmorning, dropping two bombs on Mogadishu International Airport, part of a major escalation in the week-old fighting. The leader of the Islamic militia, Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys, flew into the airport shortly after the attack; it was not clear whether he was an intended target.

Air strikes also were made on Baledogle Airport outside Mogadishu.

“We heard the sound of the jets and then they pounded,” said Abdi Mudey, a soldier with Somalia’s Council of Islamic Courts, which has controlled the capital and much of southern Somalia since June.

Somalia has not had an effective government since warlords overthrew longtime dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991, pushing the country into anarchy. Two years ago, the United Nations helped set up a central government for the impoverished Horn of Africa nation.

But the government has not been able to extend its influence outside the city of Baidoa, where it is headquartered about 140 miles northeast of Mogadishu. The country was largely under the control of warlords until this past summer, when the Islamic militia movement seized power.

Analysts fear the conflict in Somalia could engulf the region. A recent U.N. report said 10 countries have been supplying arms and equipment to one side or the other, using Somalia as a proxy battlefield.

Some analysts also fear that the courts movement will make Somalia a third front, after Afghanistan and Iraq, in militant Islam’s war against the West.

The Islamic group’s often severe interpretation of Islam is reminiscent, to some, of Afghanistan’s Taliban regime — ousted by a U.S.-led campaign in 2001 for harboring Osama bin Laden. The U.S. government says the Islamic militia’s leadership includes four al Qaeda members believed to have been behind the 1998 bombing of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

Militia forces have surrounded Somali government forces in Baidoa, where heavy artillery and mortar fire echoed through the streets, said Mohammed Sheik Ali, a resident reached by telephone.

But Ethiopian-backed government troops appeared to take the initiative yesterday.

Pro-government forces drove Islamic fighters out of the key border town of Belet Weyne, then headed south in pursuit of fleeing militiamen, a Somali officer said.

On Ethiopian television last night, the defense ministry said troops would move toward the city of Jowhar, about 55 miles from Mogadishu. Later, Ethiopia made a push in that direction, capturing the villages of Bandiradley, Adadow and Galinsor, according Yusuf Ahmed Ali, a businessman in Adadow.

As its military forces advanced against militia fighters, Somalia’s government also sought to seal its borders to prevent foreign Islamic militants from joining the Islamic courts forces.

Residents living along Somalia’s coast have seen hundreds of militants arriving by boat, apparently in answer to calls by religious leaders to wage holy war against Ethiopia.

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