Somali Islamists say they are 'at war' with Ethiopia
Somalia is "at war" with its neighbour, Ethiopia, according to the leader of Somalia's Union of Islamic Courts (UIC).
As heavy fighting between Ethiopian-backed Somali troops and the UIC continued for a third day, efforts by European diplomats to broker a last-minute peace deal appeared to have failed. There are now growing fears the rising conflict could soon spread throughout the Horn of Africa.
Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, leader of the UIC, which controls the capital, Mogadishu, as well as most of southern and central Somalia, urged all Somalis to fight alongside his troops "against Ethiopia". Military experts believe at least 8,000 Ethiopian troops are in Somalia supporting the weak interim government based in Baidoa, some 130 miles west of Mogadishu. Ethiopia claims to have sent just a few hundred "military trainers" into Somalia.
Senior American officials based in the region say they have told Ethiopia to "stay out" of Somalia but analysts and European diplomats believe the US has given Ethiopia tacit approval for its invasion.
The US has become increasingly headstrong in its assertion that the UIC must be stopped from gaining control of Somalia. The US pushed a resolution through the UN Security Council earlier this month that allowed for foreign troops to enter Somalia to prop up the government. The UIC had been opposed to foreign intervention and European diplomats had urged caution.
The US assistant secretary of state, Jendayi Frazer, asserted last week that the Courts are now "controlled by al-Qa'ida cell individuals". Ms Frazer claimed: "The top layer of the Court are extremists. They are terrorists." But that is not a view shared by the majority of diplomats based in the region. It is understood very few US diplomats with knowledge of the Horn of Africa share Ms Frazer's assessment.
Matt Brydon, an independent Horn of Africa analyst who has travelled extensively throughout Somalia, said Ms Frazer's comments were a "gross exaggeration" that were unlikely to be backed by intelligence reports. He said the US has "elevated an obscure regional problem into a global issue and potentially attracted a broad range of anti-American and anti-Western interests to the side of the Courts".
"The US should have been trying to contain this problem and keep it local. Instead it risks transforming it into a new front on the global war on terror," he added. "Calling the Courts al-Qa'ida could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. It isolates them and leaves them very few allies except al-Qa'ida and its sympathisers."
The war-ravaged country has been on the brink of a fresh conflict since June when US-backed warlords were driven out of the capital, Mogadishu, by a relatively unknown and loosely based coalition of Islamic courts.
Although some leading members of the UIC, including Sheikh Aweys, are on both the UN and US terror "watchlists", many Somalis have praised the UIC for brining a semblance of law and order to a country torn apart by 15 years of anarchy. Somalia has not had a functional central government since the military dictator, Mohamed Siad Barre, was overthrown in 1991.