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SOMALIA: Dozens killed as fighting continues in the south


More NAIROBI, 22 December (IRIN) - Dozens of civilians have been killed, at least 200 wounded, and many more have been driven from their homes as fighting continues around the southern Somali town of Baidoa, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said on Friday.

"We are very concerned about the plight of civilians who might get caught up in the fighting," said Pascal Hundt, head of the ICRC's Somalia delegation. "We call on all parties involved in the clashes to spare and protect civilians and to take every precaution when conducting military operations."

The agency urged the parties in the conflict to take all necessary measures to ensure that the wounded and captured fighters are protected and receive treatment, and that medical staff, hospitals and clinics are spared from attacks.

Fighting began four days ago between forces of the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) and those of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG). International media reported Ethiopian tanks heading to the battlefront on Friday. Reuters quoted witnesses as saying they heard the rumble of armour before dawn.

The UIC accuses Ethiopia of sending troops into Somalia to support the TFG. Ethiopia denies the accusation, but admits it has military trainers in Baidoa. Instead, it says Eritrea ferries weapons to the UIC - a claim denied by Eritrea.

Local sources in Baidoa and Buur Hakaba (60 km north of Baidoa) told IRIN on Friday that fighting had resumed on both the southern [Iidale] and northern [Daynnunay] fronts. "There is fierce fighting going on near Iidale," said a Baidoa resident. Both sides, he added, were using heavy weapons, "including tanks and artillery".

The Daynuunay front was quiet this morning, but "around 1:00pm fighting resumed and it is still going on", said a resident in Buur Hakaba. The sources said both sides had been receiving reinforcements since Thursday.

The ICRC call came after three international aid agencies operating in south-central Somalia appealed to the warring sides to cease hostilities, allow for unrestricted humanitarian access, and resume peace talks.

CARE, Save the Children-UK and World Vision International on Thursday urged the TFG and UIC to ensure humanitarian access to those who are suffering from the effects of fighting, recent flooding and months of prolonged drought.

The three agencies are among the largest of their kind working in South and Central Somalia and, between them, they provide relief and development support to an estimated 1.5 million people. "Close to one million people have been seriously affected by a series of multiple natural disasters," Paul Daniels, assistant country director for CARE-Somalia, said.

They warned that the war would compound the effects of recent flooding after months of drought, and "is likely to displace over one million vulnerable people and create a new surge of refugees in neighboring countries", as well as destabilise the entire Horn of Africa region. Graham Davison, the World Vision-Somalia's operations director, said, "We request safe and secure access to enable us to carry out our humanitarian work."

In a separate statement, the United Nations appealed to both sides of the conflict to exercise restraint. The UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Somalia, Eric Laroche, said that he was extremely disturbed the by the deteriorating situation in the country.

"Engaging in conflict at a time when a significant segment of the population is already struggling for survival is unacceptable," Laroche said. "More than ever, stability is now essential for the success of the ongoing humanitarian operation and all efforts should be entirely focused on alleviating the suffering of Somalis."

The TFG was installed in late 2004 in an effort to bring peace and security to the Horn of Africa country which has been without an effective government for 16 years. In June this year, the UIC defeated the warlords who had controlled Mogadishu since 1991, after the collapse of the regime led by Muhammad Siyad Barre. The UIC has since extended its authority to large areas in the south and central regions of the country.

Peace Hopes Fade in Somalia as Fighting Rages

ZANZIBAR, Tanzania, Dec. 22 — Any hope of a quick peace in Somalia vanished in a burst of artillery shells today, as fighting raged between rival governments of the country for a third day straight.

Residents in Baidoa, the seat of the internationally-recognized transitional government of Somalia, reported seeing columns of Ethiopian tanks rumbling toward the front lines, raising worries that Somalia’s internal problems could become regional ones.

Ethiopia has acknowledged sending several hundred military advisors to help the transitional government repel advances by Somalia’s powerful Islamist movement, which is based in Mogadishu, Somalia’s largest city and longtime capital. But Ethiopian officials continued to deny today that their troops were participating in combat.

“Tanks? What tanks?” said Zemedkun Tekle, the spokesman for Ethiopia’s information ministry. “We have not sent any heavy arms into Somalia. Such talk is just propaganda to stir up the people.”

According to United Nations officials, the transitional government, with the help of thousands of Ethiopian troops, has inflicted heavy losses on the Islamists, who rely on teenage boys to do much of their fighting. Today, the fighting was concentrated in towns surrounding Baidoa, where witnesses said that dead bodies were piling up in the streets.

As the two sides continued to blast each other with machine guns and howitzers, thousands of residents tried to flee the city for safer areas, piling into minibuses with sacks of clothes on their shoulders.

The Islamists say that they are at war on Ethiopia, Somalia’s large, powerful, Christian-dominated neighbor. The two countries have clashed repeatedly in the past over contested border areas, and the Islamist leaders, along with many ordinary Somalis, consider Ethiopian troops inside Somalia to be invaders.

Sheik Ibrahim Shukri Abu-Zeynab, a spokesman for the Islamists, said today that the fighting will only worsen.

“We will now start our real attack against the invaders, and will not stop until we force the Ethiopians out of our country,” the sheik said at a news conference in Mogadishu.

That battle-scarred city is the center of the Islamist war effort. Residents said today that they saw sailboats packed with foreign mercenaries landing on seaside capital’s rocky beaches. In town, mosques blared out calls for retired soldiers to join the Islamist army’s ranks and lend their expertise to what the Islamists say is a holy war.

Schools have been closed indefinitely so that more young people can fight at the front. And the first batch of wounded soldiers has begun to limp into the few remaining hospitals still open in the city.

Somalia has been mired in crisis since 1991, when the central government collapsed, setting off a long, nasty clan war. While the United Nations and donor nations struggled to get a new government organized and on its feet, a grassroots movement of Islamic courts began to accumulate power.

The Islamic movement defeated the last of Mogadishu’s clan warlords in June, and immediately restored an atmosphere of law an order that had not been seen in the capital for 15 years. Then it began to push outwards, eventually reaching the outskirts of Baidoa, which Islamists troops are now attacking from two sides.

The transitional government, meanwhile, has never been widely popular, and its leaders spend much of their time outside Somalia. American officials have said that if it were not for Ethiopian protection, the transitional government would have fallen months ago.

The fighting near Baidoa began on Wednesday, just as European diplomats were meeting with leaders from both sides in an effort to reach a peace agreement. The diplomats were initially upbeat about the chances of a truce. But as the fighting has continued, the diplomats have steadily become more pessimistic, saying that the rank-and-file Islamists seem bent on war even if their leaders are actually more conciliatory.

Ethiopian tanks 'in Somalia'

Mogadishu - Somalia's Ethiopia-backed forces and Council of Islamic Court fighters clashed near the seat of government in Baidoa for a second day on Thursday, with Ethiopian tanks reportedly brought into battle and both sides claiming to inflict massive casualties.

As the courts called for war against Addis Ababa, witnesses saw Ethiopian tanks being deployed east and south of Baidoa, the seat of the country's weak government.

"I saw 10 Ethiopian tanks inside (Baidoa) town and they were heading to the Daynunay area," a flashpoint garrison town, said Baidoa resident Mohamed Sahal.

Another resident, Abdullahi Mohamed, had said earlier that he had seen an Ethiopian military helicopter land in Baidoa to collect wounded soldiers.

Addis Ababa has been intervening on behalf of the government against the Islamic Court forces, which control the capital Mogadishu and much of the war-ravaged Horn of Africa nation.

Earlier, Islamic Court chief Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys had rallied Somalis to join the war against Ethiopian forces, two days after a deadline the courts had given Ethiopian troops to pull out or face major attacks expired.

'Fighting is intensifying'

Thursday's flare-up came despite European Commission humanitarian chief Louis Michel saying on Wednesday that he had secured both sides' commitment to observe a truce and resume peace talks.

Commanders said rival forces were reinforcing Daynunay and a second outpost of Idale, 60km south of Baidoa.

"The fighting in Idale area is intensifying ... There are a lot of reinforcements from both sides," government commander Ibrahim Batari told AFP.

"There are a lot bodies littered on the battle ground ... No one can confirm the casualties at the moment because the fighting is very heavy."

Islamic Court commanders, meanwhile, have vowed to use all the weapons in their possession to tackle their rivals.

"I tell you that there are great losses in this fighting," said Islamic Court commander Mohamed Ibrahim Bilal.

"We are reinforcing our side and they are reinforcing theirs too. We are getting information that Ethiopians have brought a lot of tanks into Baidoa for reinforcement."

The government claimed to have killed "hundreds" of rival fighters in Wednesday's clashes, while the Islamic Court fighters said they had killed at least 70.

Both sides acknowledged heavy casualties, but there was no independent confirmation on the figures.

Meanwhile, hundreds of terrified civilians continue to flee the frontline.

"I have taken my family to Baidoa for safety, because we can hear heavy artillery shells in the area," said Adan Mursal, a resident of Daynunay.

"No one slept all night long because of the fierce fighting."

The United Nations Office of the Co-ordinator for Humanitarian Affairs for Somalia warned that further fighting would cut off the supply of aid for nearly a million people affected by recent flooding in the area.

Ethiopia warns Somali Islamists

Ethiopia has warned Islamist militias who control most of southern Somalia that its patience is running out.

The situation in Somalia was going "from bad to worse", a statement from Ethiopia's foreign ministry warned.

The statement came as fighting between the militias and fighters loyal to Somalia's weak government continued for a fourth day.

Ethiopia denies its troops are backing government forces, but eyewitnesses report a sizeable Ethiopian presence.

Analysts fear the battles could escalate into full-scale war.

The Islamist militias - known as the Union of Islamic Courts - control the capital, Mogadishu, and have forced the Ethiopian-backed transitional government south to the town of Baidoa.

Clashes have been reported in Idale and Dinsoor, southwest of Baidoa, and Duynayney, east of the town.

The situation in Somalia has turned from bad to worse. Ethiopia has been patient so far. There is a limit to this.

The BBC's David Bamford says that if the claims by both sides about hundreds of dead are even partly true, it shows that the fighting has been the most serious in the country since the fall of Mogadishu to the Union of Islamic Courts six months ago.

The International Red Cross has managed to get some information from the front lines and estimates that dozens are dead. At least 200 wounded fighters have managed to reach local hospitals, our analyst says.

Somalia and Ethiopia - a mainly Christian nation - have a long history of troubled relations, and Islamists have long called for a holy war against Ethiopian troops in Baidoa.

On Thursday a leader of the Union of Islamic Courts said they were in a state of war with Ethiopia.

Ethiopia denies its forces are battling the advancing Islamist militias, but admits to having some military trainers in Somalia.

A BBC correspondent reported seeing a huge convoy of Ethiopian military armour near Baidoa.

The United Nations estimates that at least 8,000 Ethiopian troops may be in the country, while regional rival Eritrea has deployed some 2,000 troops in support of the Islamic group.

Both the Islamist and interim government agreed to a ceasefire and to unconditional talks on Wednesday after a visit by EU envoy Louis Michel. He is believed to be working behind the scenes to end the fighting, the Associated Press news agency reports.

The UIC has introduced law and order to the capital and much of southern Somalia for the first time in 16 years. But other countries accuse it of links to al-Qaeda, charges it denies.

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