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Ethiopian troops attack Somalia

ZANZIBAR, Tanzania -- Ethiopia officially plunged into war with Somalia's Islamist forces on Sunday, bombing targets inside Somalia and putting Ethiopian ground troops on the march in a major escalation that could turn Somalia's internal crisis i...

ZANZIBAR, Tanzania -- Ethiopia officially plunged into war with Somalia's Islamist forces on Sunday, bombing targets inside Somalia and putting Ethiopian ground troops on the march in a major escalation that could turn Somalia's internal crisis into a violent religious conflict that engulfs the entire Horn of Africa.

The aerial and ground assault was the first open admission by Ethiopia's Christian-led government of its military operations inside Somalia, where it has been supporting a weak interim government threatened by forces loyal to the Islamic clerics who control the capital, Mogadishu, and much of the rest of the country.

Ethiopia's prime minister, Meles Zenawi, said in a televised broadcast that he had ordered the action because Ethiopia faced a direct threat to its own borders.

According to witnesses, Ethiopian fighter jets bombarded several towns, obliterating an Islamist recruitment center and other targets, while Ethiopian tanks pushed deep into Somalian territory. The attacks set off riots in Mogadishu, Somalia's battle-scarred capital, and fighting on several fronts in southern Somalia.

Ethiopia, which commands the Horn of Africa's most powerful military, did not disclose how many troops, tanks orwarplanes it had sent into Somalia, but the United Nations has said at least 8,000 Ethiopian soldiers may be in the country. Casualties were reported Sunday but reliable estimates were impossible to ascertain.

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Even before Ethiopia's escalation on Sunday, there were signs that the conflict in Somalia could quickly spiral out of control.

According to U.N. officials, at least 2,000 soldiers from Eritrea, which recently waged war with Ethiopia, are fighting for the Islamists. They have been joined by a growing number of Muslim mercenaries from Yemen, Egypt, Syria and Libya who want to turn Somalia into the third front of holy war, after Iraq and Afghanistan.

On Friday, residents of Mogadishu said they saw boatloads of armed men landing on the city's rocky beaches. On Sunday, after the bombings, Islamist leaders boasted of bringing in more. Still, from the Ethiopian government's viewpoint, the bombings may be delivering at least some of the desired effect. For the first time since the Somalian Islamists came to power in June and rapidly began expanding their reach, they seemed to be losing ground. In at least three places on Sunday -- Idaale, Jawil and Bandiiradley -- transitional government troops were pushing the Islamists back.

American officials acknowledged that they tacitly supported Ethiopia's approach because they felt it was the best way to check the growing power of the Islamists, whom American officials have accused of sheltering al-Qaeda terrorists. A State Department spokesperson in Washington said Sunday that the United States was assessing reports of the surge in fighting in Somalia but provided no further comment.

A major question going forward seems to be whether Ethiopian forces will go into Mogadishu and try to finish off the Islamist military, a possibility that many fear could spur a long and ugly insurgency, or simply deal the Islamists enough of a blow to force them back to negotiations with the government.

The Somalian antagonists have considered sharing power but several rounds of peace talks have produced little but broken promises.

The Islamists are using teenagers as their main fighting force. Last week, right after heavy combat began between the Islamist troops and the transitional government forces, Islamist leaders closed all schools in Mogadishu to funnel more young people into battle.

Witnesses in front-line areas have said that waves of young, poorly trained Islamist fighters have been mowed down by Ethiopian troops. Ethiopia's military was trained by American advisers and supplied with millions of dollars of American aid.

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