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Somalis Divided Over Ethiopian Troops

Enlisting a regional rival to fight militants could hurt the transitional government and spur broader conflict, leaders and analysts warn.

July 24, 2006|Edmund Sanders | Times Staff Writer

BAIDOA, Somalia — Farah Dahirs is no fan of Islamic extremists. The young Somali writer bristled against religiously motivated attacks this month on moviegoers and World Cup fans in Mogadishu.

But after seeing Ethiopian troops march into his southcentral Somalian city to rebuff a feared assault by Islamists, he decided he'd rather live under religious rule than be controlled by Somalia's longtime rival and neighbor.

"I cannot accept Ethiopians in our homeland," said Dahirs, 26, recalling an Ethiopian bomb attack that once nearly killed his mother. "They don't want to help us. They want only to destabilize us."

Around this beleaguered Horn of Africa nation, concerns are growing that the incursion by Ethiopian troops could push Somalia's 15-year civil war to a dangerous level. Over the last 40 years, Ethiopia and Somalia have gone to war repeatedly and openly backed each other's rebel movements.

Somalian leaders and analysts warn that direct Ethiopian involvement is threatening to renew armed clashes, deepen cracks inside the fragile transitional government and broaden the crisis into a regional conflict.

"It puts the government in a tricky position because they are turning to a foreign country that Somalis consider as their historic enemy," said Mohamed Guyo, head of the Institute for Security Studies, a think tank in Nairobi, Kenya. "The government is going to lose credibility in the eyes of the people."

In Baidoa, the seat of the transitional government, President Abdullahi Yusuf's request for Ethiopia's help, which was made without approval from the parliament, is driving a wedge between rival factions.

Frustrated lawmakers are vowing to call for a vote of no confidence, perhaps as soon as this week, to remove the president's handpicked prime minister, Ali Mohammed Gedi.

The crisis began last week when militiamen of the Conservative Council of Islamic Courts, formerly known as the Islamic Courts Union, in Mogadishu, the Somalian capital, moved within 20 miles of Baidoa. Islamists said they had no plans to attack, but were simply retrieving government soldiers who wanted to defect.

By the next day, Somalis watched in shock as scores of Ethiopian trucks and armored vehicles poured into Baidoa, which is about halfway between Ethiopia and Mogadishu. Ethiopian soldiers fanned out to the airport and presidential palace in a major show of force.

Officials in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, declared that they would not hesitate to protect Somalia's government from what they consider a threat by the Islamic extremists, who recently seized control in Mogadishu.

Relations between the transitional government and the Islamists in Mogadishu have been tense since the militants trounced U.S.-backed warlords in the capital last month. The Islamic Courts militias have been praised for restoring security to the city, but some fundamentalist leaders now talk about installing a strict Islamic government. Two World Cup fans were recently shot to death by Islamic extremists who considered watching TV sports immoral.

As of Sunday, the Ethiopian troops in Baidoa appeared to have largely dispersed into the Somali bush. According to one government official, the majority were en route to Ethiopia.

But residents remain wary. Since Somalia's government collapsed in 1991, this city has endured a drought-related famine and repeated warlord attacks.

When the transitional government relocated to Baidoa this year, hopes were high that rebuilding would finally begin. Now that optimism is fading. "After all these years, we just want peace," said one drugstore owner in downtown Baidoa.

Adding to the sense of unease is the fact that some Somalian and Ethiopian government officials denied that Ethiopian troops ever crossed the border. Locals who watched the foreign troops describe a bizarre climate of intimidation, like seeing an Ethiopian elephant walk through the city but not being permitted to acknowledge it.

Local officials attempted to prevent journalists from writing about the Ethiopian presence, blocking some roads and preventing access to areas where troops were camped. A 9 p.m. curfew was imposed, allowing Ethiopian troops to travel at night without drawing as much attention.

In recent days, the lack of any official information fueled a national game of "Where's Waldo," in which Somalis exchanged rumors over the latest unconfirmed sighting of Ethiopian troops.

Over the weekend, Baidoa was abuzz with rumors that the nearby town of Wajid had been seized. A local aid worker there said Sunday that about 100 Ethiopian troops arrived at the Wajid airport to oversee the landing of a helicopter and a plane. He said they left a few hours later.

Some government critics call the request for Ethiopian assistance a major misstep that may only serve to radicalize Somalia's Muslim population and stir nationalist sentiments. At Friday prayers in Mogadishu last week, clerics called for a "holy war" against the Ethiopian Christian "invaders."

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