MOGADISHU, SOMALIA — Ethiopian jets pounded Islamic-held positions in southern Somalia, a sharp escalation Sunday of a conflict that diplomats fear could ignite a regional war.
Several hundred people have been killed in five days of fighting between Ethiopian forces and Somalia's Islamic militias. Witnesses and officials said early morning strikes by Ethiopian planes killed about 80 fighters and civilians and wounded an additional 300 in the town of Beledweyne, which has been held by Somalia's Islamic Courts Union.
Early today, Mogadishu International Airport was also bombed by two Ethiopian jets, damaging the main runway and wounding two employees, said Abdi Rahim Adan Weheliye, the airport manager.
The strike was the deepest foray by Ethiopian forces into Islamist-held areas of Somalia. The airport was believed to be an important transit point for arms and fighters.
"The enemy launched full-scale war against Somalia," Sheik Mohamoud Ibrahim Suley, an official of the Islamic courts, said Sunday. "The fighting has commenced, and it will not stop unless Addis Ababa stops the aggression."
Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi went on national television to say his country had been "forced to enter into war ... to blunt repeated attacks by Islamic courts terrorists and anti-Ethiopian elements they are supporting." Ethiopia until now had acknowledged only sending several hundred military advisors to Somalia.
International diplomats warn that Somalia's worsening strife could ignite a broader war in the Horn of Africa.
Somalia has been without a functioning government since 1991. The courts union, an alliance of Islamic religious leaders, seized control of Mogadishu, the capital, and most of southern Somalia this summer and has been battling the weak transitional federal government for control of the rest of the country.
The government of Ethiopia, a country with sizable Muslim and Christian populations, is fearful of an Islamic takeover in neighboring Somalia and backs the shaky transitional regime.
A third country in the region, Eritrea, has been backing the Islamic militias. The U.S. government, which has worked with Ethiopia's military in the past, has worried that the courts union could provide sanctuary to Islamic radicals from outside Somalia.
Sunday's attack came one day after the Islamists' top security officer called on Muslims worldwide to come to the assistance of Somalia in what the militias are characterizing as a "holy war" against Ethiopia.
In Washington, a State Department spokeswoman, Leslie Phillips, said Sunday that U.S. officials had seen the reports of escalated fighting in Somalia, "and we're following the situation closely."
An Islamic courts official speaking on the condition of anonymity said 50 Islamic soldiers were killed Sunday after two Ethiopian fighter jets struck key roads, another airport runway and a recruiting center used by the Islamists.
Eric Laroche, the United Nations humanitarian coordinator for Somalia, urged all sides to cease the hostilities to protect thousands of Somali refugees fleeing the violence.
He added that the fighting was interfering with humanitarian efforts to assist nearly 500,000 victims of flooding in Somalia.
A witness in Beledweyne said some of Sunday's casualties were flood victims living at a displacement camp in the town near the Ethiopian border.
A spokesman for the U.N.-backed transitional government denied that Ethiopian jets were involved in the attack, but Ethiopian officials confirmed the strike later Sunday.
"The Ethiopian government has taken self-defensive measures and started counterattacking the aggressive extremist forces of the Islamic courts and foreign terrorist groups," Ethiopian Information Minister Berhan Hailu told Reuters news service. He said the planes also struck targets in Diinsoor, Bandiradley and Buurhakaba.
Experts estimate that Ethiopia has sent more than 8,000 soldiers to support the transitional government. Eritrea, which has battled Ethiopia for years, reportedly has sent 2,000 troops to assist the Islamists, although the government has not acknowledged that.
In Mogadishu, Islamist supporters rioted, burned tires, stoned businesses and chanted anti-Ethiopian slogans.
"We will resort to all tactics, including suicide attacks, if the Ethiopians don't stop the occupation," said Hussen Hirre Abdi, 14, attending Sunday's protest.
Special correspondent Albadri reported from Mogadishu and Times staff writer Sanders from Nairobi, Kenya. Times staff writer Judy Pasternak in Washington contributed to this report.
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Somalia, a fractured country of 9 million people, has not had a functioning central government since 1991. In 1992, the United States intervened during a famine to protect aid deliveries amid clan warfare. The next year, a botched raid made famous by the book and movie "Black Hawk Down" led to the deaths of 18 Army Rangers and the end of the direct U.S. military effort there. In June of this year, militants of the Islamic Courts Union drove out an alliance of warlords that had ruled Mogadishu, the capital, since 1991. Prime Minister Ali Mohammed Gedi leads a transitional government, which controls only the area in and around the town of Baidoa.
Source: Los Angeles Times