Somalia Islamists and Ethiopia on the verge of war
MOGADISHU Friday, October 6 (Reuter) Somali Islamist fighters and Ethiopian troops are facing one another in two Somali villages on the border with Ethiopia, raising fears of clashes, an Islamist leader and residents said on Friday.
Hussein Mahamud, deputy head of the Islamist troops, said hundreds of people had fled the villages of Warqumayo and Fiirarle after his fighters camped some 2 km (1.25 miles) from 1,500 Ethiopian troops in the area.
“We are facing one another,” Mahamud told Reuters by phone from the nearby town of Balatweyne. “If they don’t leave our soil we will be forced to eject them … A final decision to fight them will be taken in days.”
Ethiopia denied its troops had crossed into Somalia, where the Islamists have rapidly expanded their influence since seizing the capital Mogadishu from U.S.-backed warlords in June, further weakening the interim government.
“The claim is categorically false,” Solomon Abebe, a spokesman for Ethiopia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry said.
Islamist leaders, who oppose the interim government based in the provincial town of Baidoa, have repeatedly urged Somalis to defend their country against an Ethiopian military presence.
Witnesses say Ethiopia — long the most powerful country in the region — is bolstering the Western-backed interim government by sending troops to Baidoa. Addis Ababa denies this.
Mahamud said the Ethiopian troops in the border area, about 170 km northeast of Baidoa, were armed with automatic rifles and that a military cargo plane kept flying to and from the villages.
“There are 1,500 Ethiopian troops, they have no tanks … We have many troops and technicals there,” he said, referring to pickups mounted with guns. “Residents have fled, the villages are empty.”
He did not say how many Islamist fighters were in the area.
The Ethiopian foreign ministry official dismissed the Islamists’ claims as propaganda. “The extremists should refrain from anti-Ethiopian activity and propaganda.”
Fearing they may be caught in possible cross fire, hundreds of Somali nomads have either moved into Ethiopia or further into Somalia toward Balatweyne.
Abdiaziz Ahmed, a Somali man who owns a truck that ferries people and goods across the rugged border, said it was stuck in the Ethiopian border town of Ferfer.
“I just heard the border is closed and my truck is stuck on the Ethiopian side,” he said by phone.
Despite Western fears the Islamists want to impose a Taliban-style hardline system, many residents in Mogadishu credit them with bringing relative security after 15 years of anarchy since dictator Mohammed Siad Barre was ousted in 1991.