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Experts fear Somalia-Ethiopia fight could spread


Experts fear a growing conflict between Somalia's Islamist militia and neighbouring Ethiopia could engulf the Horn of Africa region.

An Islamic Courts soldier patrols Mogadishu airport after the Ethiopian air force hit Mogadishu airport, Monday, Dec. 25, 2006.

The latest escalation occurred when Ethiopian fighter jets bombed Somalia's main airport in Mogadishu on Monday, in a dramatic escalation.

The militia group, the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), has been trying to topple Somalia's weak interim government and drive out the government's Ethiopian backers.

The UIC currently holds most of central and southern Somalia. The group's strict interpretation of Islam and military tactics are similar to those of Afghanistan's former Taliban regime.

A recent UN report found that 10 countries are using Somalia as a proxy battlefield, supplying arms and equipment to both sides.

"Ethiopia and Somalia: Maybe another Iraq, another Lebanon, another Afghanistan. That is the biggest danger," Dr. Paulos Milkias, an expert on Africa, told CTV News.

Islamic Court leaders have repeatedly said they want to incorporate ethnic Somalis living in eastern Ethiopia, northeastern Kenya and Djibouti into a Greater Somalia.

The militia group took control of capital city Mogadishu in June and has since declared a "holy war" against Ethiopian forces backing the interim Somali government.

Ethiopia's Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has said his country is "at war" with the Islamists, and admitted his troops are fighting in Somalia.

"The Ethiopian government is bombing non-civilian targets in Somalia in order to disable and prevent the delivery of arms and supplies to the Islamic Courts," said Bereket Simon, an adviser to Zenawi.

Fresh fighting between Somali government forces and the UIC erupted last week.

The government holds only one major town, Baidoa, which militants now have within reach. Heavy artillery and mortar fire could be heard through Baidoa, as the army tried to push back the Islamic forces positioned about 20 kilometers outside of town.

Pro-government forces took control of Belet Weyne, an important border town.

"Anyone who has a gun but is not wearing a government uniform will be targeted as a terrorist," Aden Garase, a government soldier who was put in charge of Belet Weyne, told The Associated Press.

Ethiopia announced Monday night that its troops would move towards Jowar, a city about 90 kilometres from Mogadishu.

Thousands of Somalis have fled their homes during recent fighting. Government officials and Islamic militiamen have said hundreds of people have been killed in clashes since Tuesday, but the claims could not be independently confirmed. v Some reports from Somalia's coast reported seeing hundreds of militants arriving by boat.

Somalia has been in turmoil since warlords overthrew longtime dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991. Ethiopian ally and warlord Abdullahi Yusuf became Somalia's interim president in 2004, and works from his base in Baidoa.

His government was formed two years ago with the help of the United Nations, but has failed to assert any real control.

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