Ethiopia claims it has 'broken the back' of Somalia's Islamists
Ethiopia's Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, claimed that his country was halfway to winning its war against Somalia's Islamic Courts militias as his troops began to march towards the capital, Mogadishu.
He said yesterday that Ethiopian troops had "broken the back" of the Union of Islamic Courts, which were now, he said, in full retreat. "We have already completed half of our missions," he added, "and as soon as we finish the second half, our troops will leave Somalia."
Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, one of the main leaders of the Islamic Courts, admitted that his troops had withdrawn from some areas, but hinted at a change in tactics to counter Ethiopia's superior firepower. "The war is entering a new phase," he said. "We will fight Ethiopia for a long, long time and we expect the war to go every place."
Somalia has already experienced its first two suicide attacks this autumn, with car bombs going off in Baidoa, the seat of the weak transitional government. Some of the Courts' more hardline leaders have threatened to carry out similar attacks in Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa.
The Islamic Courts, which control most of southern and central Somalia, including Mogadishu, have been under heavy attack since fighting broke out eight days ago. Ethiopian jets bombed Mogadishu airport on Christmas Day and Mr Meles claimed that more than 1,000 soldiers aligned with the Courts' militias have now been killed.
The Islamists claim they too have killed hundreds of Ethiopian and Somali government troops. Neither claim has been independently verified. The Red Cross said that its hospitals and clinics in Somalia have treated al least 800 people - civilians and combatants.
The Somali government envoy to Ethiopia claimed yesterday that Ethiopian troops could capture Mogadishu within days, although analysts in the region think an attack is unlikely. The interim government has little military firepower or expertise of its own. Without the support of Ethiopia, analysts say, the government would have been severely outgunned by the Islamists.
If Ethiopia makes good its promise to leave Somalia once its objectives have been fulfilled it may be difficult for the government - which is increasingly unpopular outside Baidoa - to hold on to the towns the Ethiopians have helped them take.
The interim government's Foreign Minister, Ismael Mohamoud Hurreh, said his forces had been training for five months and would be able to defeat the Islamists when Ethiopia retreats.
The UN Security Council was briefed on the situation by the secretary general's special envoy to Somalia, François Lonseny Fall, in an emergency session convened last night. The African Union and the Arab League will meet today to discuss ways to bring the Somali government and the Islamic Courts back to the table for peace talks.