EXCLUSIVE-Eleven nations feed Somali war build-up – experts

November 10th, 2006 Print Print Email Email

NAIROBI, Nov 10 (Reuters) – Militant groups and 11 countries are funnelling the military aid needed for a full-scale war into Somalia, widening the threat of conflict into the Horn of Africa and beyond, sources said a United Nations report will say.

Several security experts familiar with the content of an arms embargo violations report to the U.N. Security Council, due out next week, said the build-up of military supplies and personnel was aggressive even by Somali standards.

Reuters has not seen the report, which covers the period from June when Islamists took control of Mogadishu from U.S.-backed warlords, but interviewed several experts who have seen the final version.

They say the report says Somalia’s powerful Islamist movement has in its ranks about 1,000 battle-hardened foreign jihadists and volunteer trainers expert in assassination, suicide bombing and sniping from militant groups including Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

Syria, Iran, Libya, Sudan, Egypt, Eritrea, Djibouti and Saudi Arabia have all provided weapons or supplies — including food, uniforms, fuel and doctors — to the Islamists.

“They are preparing for a fight. There exists an agreement between the countries that says ‘This country provides this, this country provides that,’” one expert told Reuters.

Besides the militants who have operated in Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan and even Indonesia, there are thousands of conventional soldiers inside Somalia from Horn of Africa rivals Ethiopia and Eritrea, the experts said, quoting the report.

The experts said Ethiopia has between 5,000 and 10,000 troops with armoured vehicles in Somalia, while Eritrea has about 2,500 including specialists in anti-aircraft combat.

Yemen and Uganda have given weapons and other support — including about 100 soldiers in Uganda’s case — to President Abdullahi Yusuf’s government, the report says.

Ethiopia has said it has several hundred military trainers there. Eritrea has denied any involvement in Somalia. Uganda has made no comment, but some officials admit they have sent police trainers there.

U.N. officials had no comment. The 1992 embargo on Somalia, already awash in guns, is the most widely flouted in the world.

REGIONAL DYNAMITE

What emerges from the report, the experts say, is a potential war of coalitions split along Muslim-Christian lines — not just between the shaky government and the Islamists who have dashed its hopes to impose central rule.

“This has the potential to turn Somalia into Iraq,” said one of the officials, who declined to be named.

Many have long feared Ethiopia and Eritrea, bitter over a 1998-2000 war for their still-disputed border, will use neighbouring Somalia as a proxy battleground. The report provides further evidence that may be the case, the experts say.

It says the Islamists are allied with Ethiopian insurgents from the Ogaden National Liberation Front — from the ethnically Somali Ogaden region — and the Oromo Liberation Front.

The experts say the report shows the potential for an asymmetrical Iraq-style conflict involving bombings and assassinations that could spread into east and central Africa.

“They’re not going to stop with conventional weapons with Ethiopia. They’re going to hit soft targets,” the official said.

That could mean attacks in Kenya and possibly stirring up insurgent groups across the region stretching down to eastern Congo.

Ethiopia, the United States and the United Nations have long said Islamist leaders have links to al Qaeda, which they deny.

The exchange of tactics, fighters and experience with militant groups is far more structured than previously seen, the expert said.

“They have a plan, they have the will and they have the means. Everything they are, the West is not.”

And though conventional wisdom has long said Ethiopian air power would give the government and its military patron the decisive edge, Eritrea has found a way to counter it, they said.

“The Eritreans are bringing in aircraft in pieces, flying them into Mogadishu,” the expert said, but could not quantify how many had arrived.

Though that information is not in the report, the experts said Ethiopia and Uganda had given the interim government anti-aircraft weapons, including shoulder-fired SA-7 heat-seeking missiles and heavy machine guns.

“It tells me if they bring in anti-aircraft weapons that they know their enemy has aircraft,” the other expert said.

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