Meles vows to defend nation against threat of war by Somali Islamists

October 10th, 2006 Print Print Email Email

October 10, 2006 ADDIS ABABA, (AP) Ethiopia Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said Tuesday his county would defend itself against Somalia’s radical Islamic group if it followed through with threats to launch a holy war against Ethiopia.Speaking to journalists at the National Palace in the capital, Addis Ababa, Zenawi said the country would “take whatever measures are necessary” if an attack took place.

“But I hope it will not come to that,” Meles said.

On Monday, a top Islamic leader called for a holy war against Ethiopia, accusing its neighbor of deploying troops inside Somalia to help the weak government to capture a strategic hilltop town.

“Ethiopian troops have intentionally invaded our land,” said Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, wearing combat fatigues and holding aloft an AK-47 assault rifle. We will counter them soon.”

Tensions between Ethiopia, which supports Somalia’s weak, U.N.-backed government, and the Islamic group that controls much of the war-ravaged country, have been mounting in recent months. So far, both sides have avoided any direct military confrontation.

The Islamic militants have declared holy war against Ethiopia on a number of occasions in recent months. Ethiopia “” with almost half of its 77 million population being Muslims “” is fearful of a neighboring fundamentalist state. It accuses the Islamic group of backing terrorists.

“Naturally, if and when we are directly threatened by the jihadists we reserve the right to protect ourselves and take whatever measures are necessary,” Meles said at a joint news conference with visiting Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo.

Somalia has not had an effective national government since 1991, when warlords overthrew dictator Mohammed Siad Barre and then turned on one another, throwing the country into anarchy.

A transitional government was formed in 2004 with U.N. help in hopes of restoring order. But it has struggled to assert authority, while the Islamic movement seized the capital, Mogadishu, in June and now controls much of the south.

Meles also reiterated calls for deployment of an African peacekeeping force into the country. However, the Islamic group opposes any outside intervention, and is particularly incensed at any role played by Ethiopia, Somalia’s historic rival.

Obasanjo said dialogue is needed between the rival groups in Somalia to bring peace to the country. Fragile peace talks between the Islamic militants and the weak government are expected to resume later this month in Khartoum, Sudan.

The Islamic group’s strict and often severe interpretation of Islam raises memories of Afghanistan’s Taliban, which was ousted by a U.S.-led campaign for harboring Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida fighters.

The United States has accused Somalia’s Islamic group of sheltering suspects in the 1998 al-Qaida bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Bin Laden has said Somalia is a battleground in his war on the West.

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