- The Washington Times - Monday, October 9, 2006

MOGADISHU, Somalia — An Islamic militia that has seized much of southern Somalia declared a holy war yesterday against Ethiopia, accusing the Horn of Africa neighbor of deploying thousands of troops to prop up the country’s weak, U.N.-backed government.

“I urge all the Somali people to wage holy war against the Ethiopians,” said top Islamic leader Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, wearing combat fatigues and holding aloft an AK-47 assault rifle.

“Ethiopian troops have intentionally invaded our land,” he said. “We will counter them soon.”

His comments came hours after residents said hundreds of Ethiopian and government troops forced Islamic fighters to abandon Bur Haqaba, a strategic hilltop town.

Sheik Yusuf Indahaadde, the national security chairman for the Islamic group, said 35,000 Ethiopian troops were on Somali soil, but did not give any further details. Foreign observers, however, have put the number in the hundreds.

“This is a declaration of war,” he said. “We will not wait anymore. We will defend the integrity of our land.”

The Islamic courts have declared holy war against Ethiopia on a number of occasions in recent months but have so far avoided any direct military confrontation.

Somalia has not had an effective national government since 1991, when warlords overthrew dictator Mohammed Siad Barre and then turned on one another, throwing the country into anarchy.

A transitional government was formed in 2004 with U.N. help with the hope of restoring order after years of lawlessness. But it has struggled to assert authority, while the Islamic movement seized the capital, Mogadishu, in June and now controls much of the south.

Tensions between the Islamic movement, which is expanding control over large parts of the war-ravaged country, and the weakened government are high. Each side has accused the other of violating a tentative peace agreement signed last month in Khartoum, Sudan.

The Islamic group opposes any outside intervention and becomes particularly incensed about any role played by Ethiopia, Somalia’s historic rival.

Somalia’s weak but internationally recognized government publicly denies it is being supported by Ethiopian troops. However, government officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press, said about 6,000 Ethiopian troops are in Somalia.

The reports from Bur Haqaba prompted another denial from Ethiopia.

Islamic officials said three Ethiopian battalions totaling 750 men alongside government militia rode into Bur Haqaba yesterday morning without firing a shot. The town was taken over by Islamic forces in late June.

Bur Haqaba is perched along six hilltops, allowing forces there to control the only road between Mogadishu, controlled by the Islamists, and Baidoa, the seat of the transitional government.

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