Meles fails to prove British jihadis caught

January 14th, 2007 Print Print Email Email

By Colin Freeman and Mike Pflanz in Nairobi, Sunday Telegraph

Embarrassed Mele’s claims that it has arrested British citizens in operations against Islamic fighters in Somalia looked increasingly dubious last night after the Foreign Office said that requests for proof had drawn a blank.

Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia’s prime minister, whose forces ousted Somalia’s Islamic Courts Union from power over New Year, said on Tuesday that the Britons were part of an “international brigade” of hard-core foreign jihadis targeted in Monday’s US air raid in southern Somalia.

Ethiopian troops occupying the area later claimed to be holding seven British passport-holders injured in the strike. The captured men were said to be Somalis resident in Britain who had returned to fight for the Islamic Courts. However, despite five days of urgent requests for further details, London has yet to be given names or passport numbers to check against Home Office and anti-terrorist- databases.

A final Foreign Office put-up-or-shut-up request on Friday had come to nothing by yesterday afternoon. It is understood that British officials, deeply anxious at the prospect of a Somali terror cell with links to Britain, also made their own inquiries via the High Commission in neighbouring Kenya and MI6, but have yet found nothing to support the claims.

The Ethiopian government’s failure to provide evidence will heighten suspicions that Mr Zenawi may have talked up the possibility of foreign jihadists to help justify the invasion. Ethiopia is an historical enemy of Somalia.

While Mr Zenawi’s forces went in ostensibly in support of Somalia’s exiled transitional government, critics allege it was part of a wider plan to consolidate power over an unstable neighbour. The question marks over the Ethiopian version of events will add to the growing doubt over the wisdom of the American airstrike on the village of Ras Kamboni, near the Kenyan border, in which up to 100 people are believed to have died.

On Thursday, the US ambassador to Kenya, Michael Ranneberger, admitted that none of the wanted al-Qaeda terrorists who were the original target of the gunship had been killed or captured.

Critics say the move, the first American action on Somali soil since the 1993 Black Hawk Down disaster forced US troops to pull out, risks undermining support for its war on terror in the region and will shore up support for the Islamists. While Mr Ranneberger has denied that large numbers of civilians were caught up in the attack, the British-based charity Oxfam said yesterday that its Somali partner organisations had reported that 70 nomadic hersdmen were killed in the strike.

Ethiopia has denied exaggerating the Islamist threat to win US backing for its cause, and insists its incursion on to Somali soil was partly in self-defence.

The government claims that Islamist fighters suspected of affiliation to Somalia’s Courts faction have been trying to stir up tensions in Ethiopia, mounting cross-border raids to kill Ethiopian Christians.

However, the invasion has increased the risk of instability within Somalia, where the Islamic Courts militias had brought peace after nearly 15 years of anarchy under dozens of rival warlords. Since the Islamic militias were deposed from their stronghold in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, residents have complained of increased incidents of lawlessness once again, including carjackings and armed feuds.

“People are fearing a return to the chaos that the Islamic Courts ended,” said Ahmed Abdisalam, of the Mogadishu radio station Horn Afrik Media.

Ethiopian soldiers who have helped to instal Somalia’s transitional government have also been accused of a series of assaults on civilians. Troops have stopped buses outside Mogadishu and roughed-up travellers in an attempt to hunt down anyone who supported or fought for the Islamic Courts Union, according to United Nations officials.

A UN report says they are also believed to have killed several ethnic Somalis from Ethiopia’s disputed Oromo region, who had gone to Somalia to take up arms with the Islamists.

Five men in Ethiopian army uniforms also allegedly raped a woman near the Kenyan border, Western aid workers said. “This is not the only incident. We are receiving many of these reports,” said one. “War is not an excuse for these actions, nor is victory.”

At the same time, Islamists from the Courts’ ultra-hardline al-Shabab group are said to be targeting civilians seen to be supporters of the transitional government or the Ethiopians.

Yesterday a three-month period of martial law was announced and transitional government forces went on house-to-house weapons searches in Mogadishu.

Discussions are now under way for an African Union peacekeeping force in Somalia, possibly under overall UN control.

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