Somalia tension on the rise

Both sides appeared to ignore urgent appeals to ease soaring tensions with the Islamists vowing to attack Ethiopian troops protecting the administration and both sides ruling out new peace talks if the status quo remains.

Despite growing calls to resume negotiations that collapsed last month, the
Islamists said they would not attend while Ethiopian soldiers are in the country and the government said Islamist threats had shut the door to peace.

In the capital, Islamist deputy security chief Sheikh Mukhtar Robow said attacks against Ethiopian soldiers, on whom the Islamists have declared holy war, were imminent but pledged the government itself would not be a target.

“We are not going to attack Somalis, we will only target Ethiopian forces on our territory,” he told news agency AFP. “We urge Ethiopia to leave our country because we have made it clear we will strike them anywhere they are.”

The Islamists have set a Tuesday deadline for Ethiopian troops in the country to leave or face major attacks, an ultimatum that Ethiopia has played down, saying its soldiers will remain as long as the Somali government wants.

“As long as Ethiopian forces are in Somalia, there will be no negotiations,” Sheikh Robow said. “We have liberate our country from the invaders.”

The pledge not to directly attack the government, however, appeared not to alter the steady march to war as thousands of Ethiopian troops are said to be entrenched in and around the government seat of Baidoa.

Ethiopia denies having thousands of combat troops in the town, about 250
kilometres northwest of the capital, but admits to sending several hundred military trainers and advisers to help the government.

In Baidoa, the only major town still under government control, Somali
President Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed said the Islamists had destroyed any chance for peace.

“The door for peace talks has been closed as long as the Islamists are threatening the government,” he told reporters at the presidential compound, noting a steady advance of Islamist fighters toward the town.

“War is now inevitable,” President Yusuf predicted, repeating allegations made by the United States that the Islamist movement had been taken over by Al-Qaeda militants and were bent on terrorism.

“The Islamists are controlled by al-Qaeda terrorists in east Africa and they want to make Somalia a base to wage war against the west,” he said.

In Baidoa itself, tensions ran high as residents braced for war amid reports of new Ethiopian troop and tank movements after a night punctuated by heavy gunfire, the origin of which was disputed.

“More Ethiopian troops are arriving day after day despite the Islamists deadline for them to withdraw from Somalia,” said Baidoa resident Halima Ali

“All this means we are anticipating full-scale war,” added neighbour Sayid
Ali Abukar Hassan.

On Thursday, Washington slammed the Islamist ultimatum to Ethiopia as “irresponsible” and accused the movement of undermining efforts to restart peace talks, saying it had been overrun by Al-Qaeda.

“The top layer of the courts are extremists to the core, they are terrorists and they are creating this logic of war,” the top US diplomat for
Africa Jendayi Frazer told reporters in Washington.

The United States has designated the supreme Islamist leader Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys a “terrorist” and accuses elements in the movement of harbouring suspects in the 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

It ran a covert operation to support warlords fighting the Islamists that collapsed in June when Mogadishu fell, paving the way for the Islamist seizure of much of Somalia.

In Mogadishu on Friday, Islamist officials who deny any link with terrorism denounced the US allegations as untrue and as an attempt to split their ranks with a smear campaign.

“America wants to divide us by saying some of us are Al-Qaeda operatives,” said Sheikh Abdurahim Ali Muddey, spokesman for the Supreme Islamic Council of Somalia (SICS). “We have no hardliners.”

Somalia has been without a functioning central authority since the 1991 ouster of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre and the two-year-old government has been unable to assert control across the nation of some 10 million.

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