An Islamic militia leader whose forces control the capital called for a holy war Friday against Ethiopian troops protecting Somalia’s weak U.N.-backed government.
Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys, speaking on Radio Shabelle, said Ethiopia’s decision to send troops to protect the transitional government in Baidoa, 150 miles northwest of Mogadishu, must be met with war.
“I am calling on the Somali people to wage a holy war against Ethiopians in Baidoa,” said Aweys, accused by the United States of having ties to al-Qaida. “They came to protect a government which they set up to advance their interests.”
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 transitional President Abdullahi Yusuf’s compound. Ethiopian and Somali government officials have denied Ethiopian troops are in the country, though witnesses from five towns reported seeing them.
“Abdullahi Yusuf is in the pocket of Ethiopia,” Aweys said in the nationwide broadcast. “He’s been a servant of Ethiopia for a long time.”
Islamic militants had rallied people to condemn the presence of Ethiopians after Friday prayers.
Anti-Ethiopian, anti-U.S. demonstrations
Demonstrators in Mogadishu shouted anti-Ethiopian and anti-U.S. slogans as they marched in the capital, accompanied by dozens of Islamic militiamen and trucks mounted with heavy weapons.
“We are against Ethiopian troops invading our country,” read some of the banners carried by demonstrators, most of them men.
“God is Great!” shouted the protesters.
Radical Islamic militia, however, later gunned down two people during a rare demonstration against the rulers of Mogadishu.
“We don’t want Islamic movements!” the protesters shouted before fleeing the gunfire, the Banabir radio station reported.
Baidoa residents appeared unfazed by the presence of Ethiopian troops. Tensions sparked by fears of attacks by Islamic militants eased Friday in the town.
The troops, wearing military uniforms, deployed near the Somali president’s home in Baidoa, at the airport and on the outskirts of the town, residents said by telephone.
Ethiopia’s move could give the internationally recognized Somali government its only chance to curb the increasing power of the militia, known as the Supreme Islamic Courts Council.
But Ethiopia’s incursion also could be the pretext the militiamen need to build public support for a guerrilla war. Militiamen already control the capital and most of the rest of southern Somalia.
Ethiopia continued to deny its troops were in Somalia.
“There are no Ethiopian troops who have crossed the border into Somalia,” Ethiopian Foreign Ministry spokesman Solomon Abebe told The Associated Press. “How can they tell who is Somali and who is Ethiopian?”
An enemy and a friend
Reliance on Ethiopia appears to make the Somali government beholden to the country’s traditional enemy and hurts its legitimacy. Anti-Ethiopia sentiment still runs high in much of this almost entirely Muslim country, which is why the government and Ethiopia, a mostly Christian nation, may want to keep the troop deployment quiet.
The neighboring countries are traditional enemies, although Somalia’s president has asked Ethiopia for its support.
The United States urged Ethiopia on Thursday to exercise restraint and said the European Union, the United States, the African Union, the Arab League and others in a contact group will meet soon to discuss the situation.
Somalia has been without an effective central government since warlords toppled dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991 and then turned on each other, carving much of the country into armed camps ruled by violence and clan law.
On Wednesday, the Islamic militia reached within 20 miles of Baidoa, prompting the government to go on high alert. The militia began pulling back Thursday as more than 400 Ethiopian troops entered Baidoa.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan expressed concerns about the increased tensions and urged dialogue, according to a U.N. statement released Thursday.
Allegations of al-Qaida links
The United States has accused the Supreme Islamic Courts Council of links to al-Qaida that include sheltering suspects in the deadly 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. In a recent Internet posting, al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden urged Somalis to support the militants and warned nations not to send troops.
The Islamic militia has installed strict religious courts, sparking fears it will become a Taliban-style regime.
Ethiopia sent troops into Somalia in 1993 and 1996 to quash Islamic militants attempting to establish a religious government.
During the first round of Arab League-mediated talks in Khartoum, Sudan, the government and the Islamic group agreed to stop all military action — though the Islamic group has been engaged in clashes and military deployments since.
The government first balked at a second round but agreed to resume talks under pressure from the contact group of foreign governments and international organizations.