updated 12/14/2006 2:38:10 PM ET 2006-12-14T19:38:10

The United States on Thursday condemned as “irresponsible” a threat by Somalia’s Islamist movement to attack Ethiopian troops backing the Horn of Africa nation’s interim government unless they leave within days.

The defense chief for the Mogadishu-based Islamists gave the ultimatum on Tuesday. He said Ethiopia has sent more than 30,000 troops to bolster the Somali government in Baidoa, the only town it controls in the country.

But Addis Ababa has scoffed at the war threat, saying it only has a few hundred trainers with the Somali government, which is backed by the West in a 14th attempt since 1991 to restore central rule to the conflict-ridden nation.

“The United States regrets the irresponsible ‘ultimatum’ issued by the Islamic Courts,” U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Jennifer Barnes said from Washington’s Nairobi mission, which has responsibility for Kenya and Somalia.

“Given the existing heightened tensions in Somalia, this ultimatum further destabilizes the situation and undermines international and regional efforts to encourage credible dialogue between Somali parties,” she added.

The Islamists’ Dec. 19 deadline for Ethiopian withdrawal has heightened fears of all-out war in Somalia, where skirmishes have taken place between reconnaissance teams from government and Islamist troops close to each other near Baidoa.

A senior leader of the Somalia Islamic Courts Council said in Yemen on Thursday it would only hold talks with Ethiopia when Addis Ababa withdrew its troops.

“Otherwise their fate will be defeat and we will fight them until we evict them from Somalia,” Sheikh Sharif Ahmed told the state-owned Yemeni satellite channel from Aden.

The Islamists took Mogadishu in June and have expanded across south Somalia since then.

Fighters from the religious movement effectively flank the government on three sides, and rival soldiers are just a few miles apart at a slim front line near Baidoa.

“If the so-called Islamic Courts and their alliances are determined to spark war in Somalia then it is inevitable to happen — but the government is ready to defend,” Somali Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi told reporters in Nairobi.

Diplomats fear any fighting could quickly spill into a regional war given that Ethiopia openly supports the government while its arch-foe Eritrea is accused of sending arms and fighters to help the Islamic Courts.

Foreign nations are urging the Somali rivals to return to peace talks, which stalled in Khartoum last month.

No easy solution
However a U.N. resolution endorsing an African peacekeeping mission — which the government wants, but the Islamists have sworn to fight — has made a quick resumption of talks unlikely.

Washington pushed for the U.N. motion despite European and analysts’ fears that instead of promoting peace, a foreign force might inflame the situation and draw jihadists to Somalia.

“You had the bizarre situation where only one country wanted this resolution, and everyone else disagreed, but it got through because of who that country is,” said a Western diplomat.

Despite its own disastrous intervention in Somalia in the 1990s — depicted in the Hollywood film “Black Hawk Down” — Washington argues the arrival of a formal African peacekeeping force to protect the government would pave the way for an exit of Ethiopian and Eritrean forces in Somalia.

African Union Commission Chairman Alpha Omar Konare backed that view at a regional summit in Kenya, saying peacekeepers were needed to stop the “rot” in Somalia. “If we do not do this now, then we must prepare ourselves for the emergence of ethnic republics and religious republics in the coming years,” he said.

Eritrea on Thursday called for a special meeting of east African inter-governmental body IGAD to discuss the resolution.

“Deploying peacekeepers, partially lifting the arms embargo and supporting one side not only worsens the problem but also lacks clear objective,” the Information Ministry said.

Somali premier Gedi, also attending the Great Lakes summit, said the Islamists were hoping to strike before peacekeepers could come in. “In this respect they are putting many forces in the area of Baidoa in the hope they will attack,” he said.

Copyright 2012 Thomson Reuters. Click for restrictions.

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