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Eritrea calls emergency meeting on Somalia


Asmara - Eritrea is calling for an emergency east African meeting to discuss the situation in Somalia, where it and arch-foe Ethiopia have been accused of waging a proxy war, officials said Thursday.

As all-out war that many fear could engulf the Horn of Africa looms in the lawless nation, Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki urged a crisis meeting of regional foreign ministers, they said.

The call comes as Somalia's powerful Islamist movement continues to threaten the weak Ethiopian-backed Somali government and follows UN Security Council authorisation last week of east African peacekeepers to aid the administration.

Eritrea denies charges by UN experts that it is arming the Islamists but has sided with the movement in opposing the deployment of a peacekeeping mission by the regional

Ethiopia must quit Somalia before any talks-Islamist

ADEN, Dec 14 (Reuters) - A senior leader of the Somalia Islamic Courts Council (SICC), which controls most of Somalia, said on Thursday it would only hold talks with Ethiopia after the neighbouring African state withdrew its troops.

Islamists in Mogadishu have already threatened to attack Ethiopian troops unless they leave Somalia by Tuesday.

The defence chief for the Mogadishu-based Islamists said Ethiopia had until Dec. 19 to remove the more than 30,000 troops they say it has on Somali soil to bolster the administration of President Abdullahi Yusuf in Baidoa, the only town under government control.

Ethiopia says it has several hundred military trainers in Somalia.

"We are ready to speak to the Ethiopians if they leave Somalia. Otherwise their fate will be defeat and we will fight them until we evict them from Somalia," Sheikh Sharif Ahmed told the state-owned Yemeni satellite channel from Aden where he arrived on Wednesday for talks with Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Sheikh Sharif said he discussed with Saleh a Yemeni peace initiative for reconciliation between Somali factions. He did not elaborate.

The Islamists' deadline for Ethiopian withdrawal has heightened fears of all-out war in Somalia where there have been skirmishes between reconnaissance teams from government and Islamist forces close to each other near Baidoa.

The Islamists took Mogadishu in June and have expanded across south Somalia since then.

Many countries fear any war in Somalia could inflame the Horn of Africa and spread south into Kenya and beyond.

A U.N. monitoring group reported last month that Yemen, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Iran, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Uganda were all providing military support to the authorities or the Islamists in violation of a 1992 U.N. arms embargo

Coming storm in Somalia threatens regional war

Watching Somalia right now is like standing on a beach, waiting for a category five hurricane to hit. The storm is approaching fast, there seems little that can be done, and the ensuing destruction will be terrible - and far-reaching. The looming Somali cataclysm threatens to spark a regional war, suck in east African and Arab actors, and create a dangerous new theatre in the polarising, global contest between western power and Islamist jihadism. Somalia has the potential to make Darfur look like a little local difficulty.

The cocked trigger for all-out conflict is a deadline set by the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), a movement of growing military and popular strength that controls the capital, Mogadishu, and most of southern Somalia. If Ethiopia does not abandon the rump, western-backed government that holds the central town of Baidoa and withdraw its troops by Tuesday, the Islamists say they will attack. Several thousand Ethiopian soldiers have entered the country in recent months with tacit US backing. Their presence is officially denied. Addis Ababa has rejected the ultimatum.

“After months of preparations and posturing, both sides are now poised for a decisive battle," said Matt Bryden, former Horn of Africa director for the International Crisis Group, writing in Kenya’s Daily Nation newspaper. After decades of border conflicts, clan rivalries, warlordism, dictatorship, famine and, most recently, the worst floods in living memory, Somalia now faced “an even greater calamity: war on unprecedented scale".

The implications reach far beyond Somalia’s largely disputed borders, Mr Bryden said. “Both sides paint their confrontation in ideological terms. The transitional federal government and Ethiopia have cast Somalia as an emerging front in the ‘global war on terror’ in order to attract support from western capitals, notably Washington and London. Likewise, the Courts have attracted sympathy from across the Islamic world by portraying themselves as victims of Ethiopian aggression and western Islamophobia."

If fighting erupts, rapid escalation may follow. Jihadis from Afghanistan to Chechnya have flocked to the UIC banner. Al-Qaida, to which hardline UIC elements are linked, is exploiting the situation. Saudi Wahhabi charity funds are reportedly flowing in. And a recent statement attributed to Osama bin Laden called for resistance to all foreign troops.

According to the UIC, that includes the African protection force authorised by the UN on December 6. But this force has yet to materialise and possibly never will. Immediate neighbours are barred from participation, for fear their presence would make matters worse. Elsewhere, only Uganda has shown any willingness to risk the cauldron. And Eritrea, Ethiopia’s old sparring partner, is reportedly arming the UIC. “They are going to find it very difficult to get troops for the protection force," a western source said.

The rise of the UIC has revived old ideas of a “greater Somalia" that fuelled the Ogaden war and other post-independence conflicts. These sentiments potentially threaten autonomous Puntland in north-east Somalia and the self-declared republic of Somaliland.

The UIC also has links to Ethiopian rebel groups such as the Ogaden National Liberation Front and Oromo Liberation Front which the Ethiopian government blames for recent violence in the south-east of the country. The Islamists could thus potentially take the fight to Ethiopia. “They [the Ethiopian government] are opening themselves up to a lot of trouble," said Patrick Smith, editor of Africa Confidential. “The situation is bloody serious."

Three outcomes were possible at this juncture, the western source said. One was that UN-backed, on-off talks between the UIC and Baidoa government resumed, the African protection force deployed, and a “proper political process" got underway. Another, less improbable scenario was that Ethiopia used its military superiority to secure Baidoa and “clobber" some UIC training camps, enabling the government to negotiate from a stronger position.

But a third, nightmare outcome was that “the Ethiopians do the full monty, go in in strength, and get stuck", the source said. That could lead to spreading, al-Qaida-fuelled guerrilla warfare akin to Iraq, Sudanese-style Arab-African conflict, and ultimately, pressure for direct western intervention.

It has been long been brewing. Now this hurricane may take years to blow out.

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