Mon, Jul 24, 2006 - Page 7 News List

Incursion in Somalia expands

ETHIOPIAN INVOLVEMENT Somali peace talks fell apart on Saturday when Islamists walked out because of the arrival of Ethiopian troops in Baidoa several days earlier


Hundreds of Ethiopian troops moved into a second Somali town on Saturday to protect the country's weak, UN-backed government, as talks aimed at easing tensions fell apart when the government did not turn up and Islamist militia delegates walked out.

About 200 Ethiopian troops with at least five pickup trucks mounted with machine guns and other vehicles moved into Wajid -- a UN aid base -- about 75km southeast of the Somali-Ethiopian border, at about 3am, several witnesses said on condition of anonymity because they feared reprisals. The soldiers took control of the town's airport from a militia serving the local administration, they said.

Ethiopian and Somali government officials have denied Ethiopian troops are in the country.

"There is not a single Ethiopian soldier on Somali soil. I deny that the Ethiopians have taken control of Wajid," Deputy Information Minister Salad Ali Jeeley told reporters in Baidoa, where the fragile transitional government is based.

But residents and UN staff all said there were Ethiopian soldiers in Wajid. They also reported that two military helicopters landed there on Saturday. No armed group in Somalia possesses a helicopter.

Arab League talks in Sudan, scheduled to resume on Saturday, were aimed at easing the situation in Somalia, where the Islamist militia captured the capital, Mogadishu, from secular warlords and then consolidated their control over most of southern Somalia.

Both sides signed a temporary ceasefire agreement June 22, and the Islamists formally recognized the government, something they had previously said they would not do.

The talks fell apart on Saturday when the Islamists walked out because of the Ethiopian incursion, and the government side said it would not attend until it received international guarantees that any agreement would be respected.

"The reason why we are walking out of the conference is that the Somali government has violated the accord and allowed Ethiopian troops to enter Somali soil," said Abdirahman Janaqaw, the deputy leader of the Islamic courts' executive council.

Ethiopian troops first moved into Somalia on Thursday to protect the government, which has been challenged for power by Islamic militants. A force of more than 400 Ethiopian troops entered Baidoa, 240km northwest of the capital Mogadishu.

The militia deployed some of its fighters to within striking distance of Baidoa on Wednesday. But they pulled back as the Ethiopian troops moved in.

On Saturday, the Islamic militia's leader said that his group will consult with other representatives of Somalis to determine a response to the Ethiopian presence.

"The presence of Ethiopian troops in Somalia is naked aggression. We know that Ethiopia wants to divide to Somalia and does not want to reconcile Somali people," Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys said. "Members of Islamic Courts and representative of Somali people will decide the appropriate steps to take towards the presence of Ethiopian troops in Somalia."

Residents of Baidoa reported seeing hundreds of Ethiopian troops, in uniform and in marked armored vehicles, entering Baidoa on Thursday and taking up positions around Yusuf's compound.

Somali government leaders may be reluctant to acknowledge that Ethiopian troops have come to their aid because they do not want to appear to be beholden to the country's traditional adversary. Anti-Ethiopian sentiment still runs high in much of the country.

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