- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Allied Ethiopian and Somali government forces have “broken the backbone” of an Islamist insurgency in Somalia and are now engaged in a “mop-up operation,” despite the recent surge in fighting on the streets of Mogadishu, Ethiopian Foreign Minister Seyoum Mesfin said in an interview this week.

The minister’s upbeat assessment was in stark contrast to recent statements by United Nations humanitarian officials and private analysts, who say the new fighting poses a severe challenge to the Ethiopian-backed Somalia interim government still struggling to establish its authority.

Mr. Mesfin, who met with top Bush administration officials and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon during a U.S. visit this week, said the Ethiopian troops now in Somalia could return home “within weeks” if a promised 8,000-strong African Union peacekeeping force fully deploys to assist the struggling transitional government in Mogadishu.

“We certainly want to withdraw at the earliest possible time, but we have to be responsible about it,” Mr. Mesfin told The Washington Times on Tuesday. “We cannot leave behind a security vacuum that the terrorists can fill.”

Ethiopian forces crossed the border into Somalia in December to oust the Islamic Courts Council, a shadowy fundamentalist group that had proclaimed its intention to transform Somalia into a strict Muslim state. U.S. and Ethiopian officials said leaders of the Islamist movement had ties to al Qaeda, seen as a growing threat throughout the Horn of Africa.

Regrouping insurgent forces and clan militias have battled Ethiopian and government forces on the streets of the capital, and some say Ethiopia risks being dragged into the kind of clan and religious warfare that have left Somalia a classic “failed state” for more than 15 years.

More than 300 people, mostly civilians, have died in renewed fighting just over the past eight days, and Ethiopian tank and artillery crews pounded enemy position in downtown Mogadishu again yesterday. The United Nations has warned that Somalia already faces a massive refugee and humanitarian crisis because of the fighting.

A pair of car bomb attacks that targeted Ethiopian forces and a Mogadishu hotel used by government lawmakers killed seven persons Tuesday. A shadowy militant Islamist group calling itself the “Young Mujahedeen Movement,” which has links to the top al Qaeda leader in Somalia, said it carried out the strikes.

In the interview, Mr. Mesfin maintained that virtually all of the violence is coming from just two districts in the capital. The high-profile shelling by rebels of the airport and government buildings obscures the fact that the rest of the country “is entirely peaceful.”

“We have not entirely destroyed the terrorist threat, but the turnaround has been remarkable,” he said. “The information I have just received from our commanders is that in the latest wave of fighting we have broken the backbone of the insurgency and now are engaged in a mop-up operation.”

The foreign minister also voiced support for the beleaguered “transitional federal government” of Somali President Abdullahi Yusuf. After some early missteps, the transitional administration is now reaching out to political opponents — in particular the powerful Hawiye clan — in a bid to forge a representative national government, Mr. Mesfin said.

“I think they are very aware of the criticisms they heard about the need to be inclusive,” Mr. Mesfin said, pointing to a planned national reconciliation congress now set to be held in June.

The Bush administration has quietly supported Ethiopia’s military mission in Somalia, offering logistical aid to African nations who have pledged troops for the peacekeeping mission there. Just 1,200 Ugandan troops have been deployed to date.

Mr. Mesfin, who met with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley during his Washington visit, said bilateral relations are strong. Ethiopia has emerged as a key partner in the U.S. global war on terrorism, bolstered by the creation of a Pentagon joint task force focused on the Horn of Africa.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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