MOGADISHU, Somalia: Islamic fighters ambushed an Ethiopian convoy close to a camp where the Ethiopians are training troops loyal to the weak transitional government, witnesses said Thursday.
The Islamic fighters targeted the convoy with a remote-controlled bomb, blowing up one of the vehicles, 35 kilometers (20 miles) south west of Baidoa, the government's headquarters.
Islamic militia told The Associated Press around 20 Ethiopians were killed during the attack. The claim could not be independently verified. A Somali government official denied the attack took place.
Tensions are high in this Horn of Africa nation where the Islamic movement and the Ethiopian-backed transitional government are vying for control. Analysts fear a war could engulf the region.
Late Wednesday the U.N. Security Council condemned the "significant increase" in the flow of weapons to and through Somalia in violation of a 1992 arms embargo.
The top U.S. diplomat for Africa, Jendayi Frazer, warned the same day that al-Qaida militants are operating with "great comfort" in Somalia, providing training and assistance to a radical military element loyal to the Islamic group.
The United States is consulting council members on another resolution that would lift the arms embargo for a regional force to help promote dialogue between the transitional government and the Islamic group that has expanded its control across much of southern Somalia.
However the Islamic movement is fiercely opposed to foreign intervention.
The latest attack on Ethiopian forces occurred late Tuesday as a convoy of six vehicles crossed the border into Somalia, heading for Baidoa, the only town the interim government controls.
"The Ethiopian convoys were targeted with a remote controlled bomb, then one of their vehicles exploded," local resident Abdullahi Gaafaa told the AP by telephone.
He said both sides then opened fire on each other before the Islamic group melted away into the surrounding areas. Ethiopian officials were not immediately available for comment.
There have been heightened tensions in Somalia and fears that an all-out war could engulf the region. Ethiopia backs the transitional government, whose authority has been severely challenged by an Islamic movement that has taken over the capital and much of southern Somalia since June.
On Tuesday a top Islamic leader accused Ethiopia of shelling a town in central Somalia. On Nov. 19, witnesses said Islamic fighters ambushed an Ethiopian military convoy, killing six Ethiopian soldiers and wounding 20 others.
A confidential U.N. report obtained last month by the AP said 6,000-8,000 Ethiopian troops are in or near Somalia's border with Ethiopia, backing the interim government. Ethiopia says it just has a few hundred military trainers in the country. The report also said 2,000 troops from Eritrea are inside Somalia supporting the Islamic movement.
Somalia has not had an effective government since 1991, when warlords overthrew dictator Mohamed Siad Barre and then turned on one another. The interim government was formed with the help of the United Nations two years ago, but exerts little control.
Al-Qaida ensconced in Somalia
Al-Qaida militants are operating in Somalia, providing training and assistance to a radical military element loyal to the Islamic group that controls most of southern Somalia, a US State Department official has said.
Jendayi Frazer, who heads the department's Africa bureau, said that a priority US goal is the capture of three militants wanted for the bombings of US Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 and a hotel in Kenya in 2002.
The three are from Sudan, Kenya and the Comoros Islands, located off Africa's east coast.
"We're continuing to work with all sides in Somalia to try get those terrorists turned over and to prevent Somalia from becoming a safe haven," Frazer told a small group of reporters.
She emphasised that the Al-Qaida presence goes well beyond the three suspects.
The administration has looked on with anxiety as Islamic militants, operating under the umbrella of the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), have expanded their zone of influence in the country.
This in turn has marginalized a secular government that lacks authority despite the backing of the United Nations and the United States.
The secular authority, known is the transitional federal government, is based in the western Somali town of Baidoa, unable to expand its reach further.
The administration supports the creation of an African force, totaling a battalion or two, to train and protect the transition government.
The goal is to establish a balance in Somalia that would convince the Islamists that a military victory is impossible, thus creating conditions for a negotiated settlement between the two.(AP)
US Defends Somalia Peacekeeping Plan
The United States said Wednesday it is backing an East African peacekeeping force for Somalia to help stabilize the country, rather than fuel ongoing warfare. A U.S.-backed draft resolution in the U.N. Security Council that would clear the way for the force is expected to come up for action within the next few days. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.
The Bush administration is defending its support for the East African force, amid charges its arrival would only worsen on-going Somali violence and perhaps lead to regional warfare.
A U.S.-sponsored draft Security Council resolution, backed by the other permanent council member countries including Russia and China, would ease the international arms embargo against Somalia in place since 1992 to allow deployment of a regional force that would shore up the country's beleaguered transitional government.
Based in the western Somali town of Baidoa, the Transitional Federal Institutions or T.F.I. has international support.
But it is under military siege by the country's powerful Islamic movement, the Council of Islamic Courts, which controls the capital Mogadishu and says it aims to seize the entire country and perhaps even ethnic-Somali areas of neighboring states.
The proposed African force, to be set up by the East African regional intergovernmental grouping IGAD, would seek to stabilize the situation by providing force training and protection for the interim government, though not undertaking offensive action against the Islamic Courts.
At a briefing for reporters, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer said the United States is supporting only a narrow change in the arms embargo to allow deployment of the IGAD troops, but not fuel a wider conflict.
She said flatly that the forces of the transitional government need to be trained and reinforced so that it can be what she termed a credible negotiating partner with the Islamic Courts, which she said currently sees no reason to sit down and negotiate a settlement. "We feel that this force is also important to achieve our broader Somalia objective, which includes most importantly creating a space for the dialogue to occur between the Transitional Federal government and the Union of Islamic courts. And in particular it's our view that as long as the Union of Islamic Courts continues to believe that it can have a military victory, there will not be an engagement and serious dialogue. So you have to have some parity between two sides of the dialogue," she said.
Frazer said the envisaged eight-thousand member force would be made up of troops from the seven-country IGAD grouping and not Somalia's neighbors, including Ethiopia which is reported to have sent in troops to support the transitional government, and rival Eritrea which is helping the Islamists.
She said that contrary to claims that the IGAD force would broaden the conflict into a regional war, its deployment would actually create conditions for Ethiopia and Eritrea to disengage, while deterring further aggression against the T.F.I.
At this point, only Uganda among IGAD members has said it is ready to commit troops to the force, whose deployment is vehemently opposed by the by the Islamic Courts.
The Islamic Courts movement routed a group of U.S.-backed Somali warlords early this year and seized Mogadishu in June, later capturing most of southern and central Somalia and imposing strict religious law.
In her talk with reporters, Assistant Secretary Frazer said al-Qaida terrorists were operating with what she termed great comfort in areas controlled by the Islamic Courts and providing training and assistance to a group of radicals loyal to the Somali movement.
She said the United States has been in contact with all elements in Somalia including the Islamic Courts, which has publicly disavowed terrorism, to try to prevent the country from becoming an al-Qaida safe-haven.
Frazer said of particular concern to U.S. officials are three al-Qaida militants wanted in the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam and a coastal hotel in Kenya in 2002.