Analysis: Somalia crisis deepened by Woyanne – The Associated Press

September 24th, 2008 Print Print Email Email

NAIROBI, Kenya: Somalia is a land of a thousand plagues, with nearly 20 years of violent chaos and intractable poverty, Islamic extremism and failed peace talks. (more…)

NAIROBI, Kenya: Somalia is a land of a thousand plagues, with nearly 20 years of violent chaos and intractable poverty, Islamic extremism and failed peace talks.

But the crisis over the past 18 months is exceeding even the worst-case scenarios dreamed up nearly two years ago, when troops from neighboring Ethiopia arrived to oust a radical Islamic militia and support the Western-backed government.

The Ethiopian troops, which many Somalis consider an occupying force, are seen as a root of the violence and not a cure.

“The nature of the crisis is much more dangerous now,” Ken Menkhaus, a Somalia expert at Davidson College in North Carolina, told The Associated Press. “The level of indiscriminate violence is worse than at any time.”

With no plan in sight for an Ethiopian withdrawal, both sides of the conflict are at a deadly stalemate ? seemingly immune to U.N.-brokered peace talks, international pressure and even the daily carnage on Mogadishu’s streets.

This week saw a renewed explosion of violence with 30 people killed in fighting in the capital on Monday and at least 11 civilians killed during an overnight attack on an African Union peacekeepers’ base in Mogadishu.

The government, powerless without Ethiopia’s muscle, will likely crumble if their protectors pull out. And al-Shabab, a radical group at the heart of the insurgency, refuses to negotiate as long as Ethiopians remain.

Many in overwhelmingly Muslim Somalia resent the government’s reliance on Ethiopia, a traditional rival with a large Christian population and one of Africa’s largest armies. Ethiopia and Somalia fought a bloody war in 1977, and many Somalis see the Ethiopians as abusive and heavy-handed.

Neither side has shown regard for civilians who stream out of the capital in droves, many of them gravely wounded and taking shelter by roadsides or sneaking into neighboring countries. A local human rights group says the insurgency has killed more than 9,000 civilians to date.

The streets of Mogadishu, a once-beautiful seaside city, are now bullet-scarred and stained with blood.

“If your principal interest is quelling the political violence then an Ethiopian withdrawal will help,” Menkhaus said. “That will take away the principal grievance.”

But a pullout is unlikely, as the militants appear to be gaining strength and sidelining the government, just as they did during their six-month rule in 2006. The group, al-Shabab, or “The Youth,” has taken over the port town of Kismayo, Somalia’s third-largest city, and dismantled pro-government roadblocks. They also effectively closed the Mogadishu airport by threatening to attack any plane using it, and ordered journalists to register with them.

Unlike in 2006, however, when the Islamists steadily took over much of southern Somalia and the capital, imposing security while demanding religious piety, Ethiopia is now standing in the way of any truly significant rebel advances in power.

“The Ethiopians will make it impossible for the Islamists,” said Daud Aweys, a Nairobi-based Somalia analyst. “The Ethiopians are more powerful, and they have more weapons.”

That means al-Shabab’s near-daily mortar attacks, suicide bombings and ambushes could very likely continue with no end in sight, with the goal of simply crippling and humiliating the government. Reprisals from government and Ethiopian allies are swift and heavy-handed, but have not eradicated the insurgency.

The African Union has sent about 2,600 peacekeepers to Somalia. But they have a mandate limited to protecting key government installations such as the airport and seaport. And they are generally are confined to the airport because security is so atrocious.

The U.N. has tried to push peace talks between the government and the opposition, but a recent deal with a more moderate faction of the Islamic group seems only to have worsened the violence.

Al-Shabab denounced the talks, which took place in Djibouti, and did not participate.

“We have started building up our military strength because some of our fellow insurgents seem to have been corrupted by the enemy, like those who signed the so-called deal with the puppet government in Djibouti,” said Sheik Muhumed, a commander with al-Shabab, which the United States considers a terrorist group.

The Ethiopians, meanwhile, are eager to leave Somalia, saying they are not meant to be peacekeepers. But they continue to pledge support for the government, fearing a radical Islamic state on their doorstep.

The United States has repeatedly accused the Islamic group of harboring international terrorists linked to al-Qaida and allegedly responsible for the 1998 bombings of the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. America is concerned that Somalia could be a breeding ground for terror, particularly as Osama bin Laden declared his support for the Islamists.

The U.S. sent a small number of special operations troops with the Ethiopian forces in 2006 and in early 2007 conducted several airstrikes in an attempt to kill suspected al-Qaida members.

But the U.S. has avoided overt military action in Somalia since it led a U.N. force that intervened in the 1990s in an effort to fight famine. The mission led to clashes between U.N. forces and Somali warlords, including a battle chronicled in the book and movie “Black Hawk Down” that killed 18 U.S. soldiers.

Menkhaus and other observers say Somalis are being increasingly radicalized, blaming the Ethiopians and the government for the extraordinary violence and humanitarian crisis. The fact that Ethiopia is a key ally of the United States ? a country loathed by most Somalis ? does not help matters.

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Elizabeth Kennedy has covered East Africa since 2006.

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