Thursday, July 20, 2006

The New Front

Ethiopia troops cross into Somalia

Ethiopians want to save government; Islamists in control want them out

Thursday, July 20, 2006; Posted: 12:10 p.m. EDT (16:10 GMT)

Islamic militiamen at the Mogadishu airport on Wednesday. A top official said his forces will soon seize the base of the country's government.

MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP) -- Residents reported hundreds of Ethiopian troops in armored vehicles patrolling the central Somali town of Baidoa on Thursday, less than a day after Islamic militants reached the outskirts of the strategic town that is home to a largely powerless U.N.-backed government.

A leader of the Islamic group controlling large parts of southern Somalia demanded that Ethiopian troops withdraw.

"We will declare Jihad if the Ethiopian government refuses to withdraw their troops from Somalia. They must withdraw as soon as possible ... We will wait for some time to see if they respect our demands," Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed told The Associated Press.

A spokesman for the Ethiopian government had said that his country would protect Somalia's transitional government from attack by the Somali Islamic militias.

Witnesses told AP that Ethiopian soldiers arrived Thursday afternoon in Baidoa, the only town held by the government, 240 kilometers (150 miles) northwest of Mogadishu and about 150 kilometers (100 miles) east of the Ethiopian border.

The Ethiopians, wearing their national military uniform, smiled and waved to residents as they drove into Baidoa. Some were deployed at the airport outside the town and others drove into a fenced compound near the transitional president's home in Baidoa. Somali militiamen prevented residents from approaching the area, residents said.

The Ethiopian troops have set up a camp near the transitional president's home in Baidoa, residents said.

"People were prevented from walking on the road that leads to the building," one resident said on the condition of anonymity because of fears of reprisals.

Ethiopian and government officials were not immediately available for comment.

But late Wednesday Ethiopia's Minister of Information, Berhan Hailu, told The Associated Press that his government would intervene to prop up Somalia's transitional government, which has no effective military of its own and only controls the town of Baidoa.

"We have the responsibility to defend the border and the Somali government. We will crush them," Berhan said.

Somalia invaded Ethiopia in 1978 in an attempt to grab land occupied by ethnic Somalis.

Since then, Ethiopia has attempted to influence Somali politics to prevent another invasion. Ethiopia sent troops into Somalia in 1993 and 1996 to crush Islamic militants attempting to establish a religious government.

Somali President Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed is allied with Ethiopia and has asked for its support. Hundreds of Ethiopian troops have been spotted along the countries' border in recent weeks -- which the Islamic militia has repeatedly denounced.