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UN council sets urgent meeting on Somalia conflict


UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The U.N. Security Council scheduled an emergency meeting on Tuesday on the conflict in Somalia after a week of fighting between Somali Islamists and interim government forces backed by Ethiopia.

The 15-nation council was due at the 3 p.m. (2000 GMT) session to be briefed on the crisis by Secretary-General Kofi Annan's special envoy for Somalia, Francois Lonseny Fall of Guinea, U.N. spokesman Farhan Haq said.

Qatari U.N. Ambassador Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser, the Security Council president for December, requested the urgent meeting on a day that Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said his forces, supporting Somalia's weak interim government, had killed up to 1,000 Islamist fighters.

There was no independent verification of his statement, and the Islamists also claim to have killed hundreds.

Ethiopia Steps Up Attacks on Somalia

Ethiopian warplanes attacked the airport in Somalia's capital, Mogadishu, on Monday in another major escalation of fighting between the Ethiopian-backed Somali government and the Islamic Courts movement that in recent months has taken over much of the country.

In Mogadishu, businesses shut down and thousands of enraged Somalis loyal to the Islamic movement rallied in the streets, once again proclaiming holy war against Ethiopia, a bitter enemy that is widely perceived to be supported by the U.S. government. Witnesses said young Somali men who have grown up in a country awash with AK-47 assault rifles continued to pour into recruiting centers to sign up to fight.

And 150 miles away on the front lines near Baidoa, seat of the fragile interim government, sources said that fighters from Eritrea and Pakistan, among others, had joined the Islamic movement's battle against Ethiopia in a conflict that analysts fear could engulf the Horn of Africa.

"The feelings are very bad, very confusing -- everywhere, it's confusing," said a businessman in Mogadishu who did not want to be identified. "I didn't expect this scale of war, but most Somalis, even if they were fighting each other before on a clan basis, they are united now against Ethiopia. And there's a feeling that the international community is not helping."

Ethiopian officials vowed on state-run television Monday to push toward Mogadishu, clearing the Islamic fighters out of every town they control over the next five days. By Monday night, Ethiopian forces, which are vastly superior to the Islamic movement in conventional military terms, had secured the strategically important town of Beledweyne, which is near the Ethiopian border and along a main road to Mogadishu. The Associated Press reported that Ethiopian and government forces had also captured three villages in a push toward Jowhar, about 60 miles north of Mogadishu.

[By Tuesday, with Ethiopian forces continuing to bomb both of Somalia's main airports and to press on other crucial fronts, the Islamist forces appeared to be retreating, wire services reported. But leaders from the Islamic movement warned that they would not abandon their long-term goal of imposing Sharia law in Somalia and ousting Ethiopian fighters from their country.

"The war is entering a new phase," said Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, leader of the Council of Islamic Courts' executive body, according to the Associated Press. "We will fight Ethiopia for a long, long time and we expect the war to go everyplace."]

Aid workers said that thousands of Somalis who had fled war and drought earlier this year, and epic flooding in recent weeks, once again are abandoning their villages, leaving behind fields and livestock at harvest time. Droves of villagers are trudging down muddy roads on the long journey towards refugee camps just across the Kenyan border. The camps are already full of Somalis displaced by years of fighting and natural disasters.

"These families are really pushed into the extreme limits," said Pedram Yazdi, a spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross,said speaking from Nairobi, adding Kenya, who added that Red Cross-supported medical facilities had received more than 440 wounded, and that the total a number, that "is rising every hour." Aid workers believe the number of dead is in the hundreds.

Negotiations between Somalia's weak but internationally recognized interim government and the Islamic movement have fallen apart in recent months as the Islamic group has become stronger and advanced its control. The current conflict began even as the two sides had signed an agreement to de-escalate fighting and resume talks.

Analysts believe that Ethiopia's offensive is intended to force the movement back into negotiations by changing the situation on the ground.

But some analysts have expressed fear that Ethiopia's military calculation is seriously flawed, and that even if its superior military initially routs the Islamic movement, the ideologically driven militias will become only more motivated to pursue a guerrilla-style war or terrorist attacks across the region.

Ethiopia, which has fought two wars with Somalia in the past 45 years, is perceived as a historically Christian nation, though Muslims now make up nearly half its population.

"Hasn't anyone heard of Iraq?" said John Prendergast, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group in Washington. "A military strategy of 'countering terrorism' never works and will likely blow up in their faces."

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has maintained, however, that this is a war of self-defense and that dialogue has only bought the Islamic movement time to expand its control. He has repeatedly accused the Islamic movement of supporting secessionist Somali groups inside Ethiopia, and, along with the United States, has accused the movement of harboring terrorists, an allegation it has denied.

Though the United States has remained on the sidelines as the situation has deteriorated, Meles has said he has support for a defensive war from the United States, which fears that Somalia, a country without a central government since 1991, could become a new base for terrorist groups.

Opposition groups inside Ethiopia say that Meles, an increasingly authoritarian leader, has shrewdly played up the terrorism charges to win U.S. support. Based in part on intelligence out of Ethiopia, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Jendayi E. Frazer has asserted that the Islamic movement is now under the control of an al-Qaeda cell, a claim that regional analysts believe is exaggerated.

Although some analysts believe al-Qaeda may exert influence over some military and political leaders within the Islamic movement, they caution that the leadership is very large and complex and that claims that any one person or group is in control is a misunderstanding of the movement.

Somalia has historically been of strategic importance to the United States because of its proximity to the Middle East and Red Sea shipping lanes. But U.S. policy there has been sharply criticized over the years.

A U.S.-led attempt to stabilize the country led to the deaths of 18 American troops in October 1993 in an incident depicted in a popular book and film, "Black Hawk Down." And more recently, the United States financed warlords in Somalia who described themselves as an "anti-terrorism coalition" but who mostly terrorized local Somalis, who came to despise them.

The Islamic Courts, initially a grouping of local clerics, came to power in that context, establishing order based on Islamic law village by village, and winning the support of businessmen and others who found the transitional government ineffective and the warlords unacceptable. Analysts say it is a measure of beleaguered Somalis' desire for order, rather than a tendency toward religious extremism, that they embraced the movement.

The movement is well financed, receiving money from the Somali diaspora and countries such as Eritrea, Yemen and others, according to a recent U.N. report.

Though the movement includes moderate leaders, it is backed by a militant core of young fighters called shebab, who have been indoctrinated with the ideology of holy war and whose leaders, analysts say, seem to have become more influential in recent months.

Analysts said the current crisis stems from another failure of U.S. policy in an increasingly vulnerable region. "All this could have been averted," Prendergast said. "If the U.S. joined a serious diplomatic effort aimed at finding a compromise between Ethiopia and the Courts, negotiations could have had a much better chance. Once the serious punching has started, it's going to be increasingly difficult to stop this brawl."

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