- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 26, 2006

MOGADISHU, Somalia — Islamist fighters retreated yesterday as Somali government and Ethiopian troops advanced on three fronts in a decisive turn in the battle for control of this Horn of Africa nation.

Somalia’s internationally backed government called on the Council of Islamic Courts to surrender and promised amnesty if its fighters lay down their weapons, spokesman Abdirahman Dinari said from Baidoa, the seat of the interim administration.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, whose military openly joined the war Sunday after weeks of quietly aiding the Somali government, said his forces had completed about half their mission.

“As soon as we have accomplished our mission — and about half of our mission is done, and the rest shouldn’t take long — we’ll be out,” Mr. Meles told reporters in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.

He also said the Islamic militiamen had suffered heavy casualties, citing internal reports from Ethiopia’s military.

“I hear reports of close to 3,000 injured in Mogadishu’s hospitals … and well over 1,000 might have died,” Mr. Meles said.

Mr. Meles has said he does not intend to keep his forces in Somalia long, perhaps only a few weeks. He has told visiting dignitaries that his goal is to severely damage the Islamist movement’s military capabilities and allow both sides to return to peace talks on an even footing.

Mr. Meles said he would not send troops into Mogadishu, Somalia’s nominal capital now controlled by the Islamists, but instead encircle the city to contain the Islamist forces.

The U.N. Security Council called an emergency meeting yesterday to be briefed on the fighting. An African force authorized by the Security Council on Dec. 6 to protect the Somali government has not been deployed.

The Dec. 6 resolution, sponsored by the United States and co-sponsored by the council’s African members, also partially lifted an arms embargo on Somalia so the regional force could be supplied with weapons and military equipment.

Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, leader of the Council of Islamic Courts’ executive body, said the group had told its troops to withdraw from some areas.

“The war is entering a new phase,” he said. “We will fight Ethiopia for a long, long time, and we expect the war to go everyplace.”

Sheik Ahmed declined to explain his comments in greater detail, but some Islamist leaders had threatened a guerrilla war to include suicide bombings in Addis Ababa. He also accused Ethiopian troops of massacring 50 civilians in the central town of Cadado.

Patrick Mazimhaka, deputy chairman of the African Union Commission, expressed support for Somalia’s government and defended Ethiopia’s military advances.

“If Ethiopia feels sufficiently threatened, then we recognize the right of Ethiopia to defend itself if it thinks its sovereignty and its security are under direct threat,” he said.

In Washington, the State Department also supported the action but urged the Ethiopian government to exercise “maximum restraint.”

“Ethiopia has genuine security concerns with regard to developments within Somalia and has provided support at the request of legitimate governing authority — the Transitional Federal Institutions,” Agence France-Presse quoted department spokesman Gonzo Gallegos as saying.

Somalia has not had an effective government since warlords overthrew a longtime dictator in 1991, plunging the country into anarchy. Warlords remained largely in control until this summer, when the Islamist movement seized power in Mogadishu and much of southern Somalia.



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