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Threat of War Rises in Somalia; Islamists Set Deadline for Ethiopian Withdrawal

BY Admin  December 15, 2006 at 5:45 PM EST

Somali troops in Baidoa

“I’m afraid when war breaks out, roads will be closed and food is going to be unaffordable” Said Ali Ahmed, a laborer and father of three, told Reuters.

Leaders of Somalia’s Islamic Courts militias, who wrested control of much of the country from warlords in June, have threatened attacks on Ethiopian troops, who are in Baidoa providing protection for the mostly ineffective interim Somali government.

The government, which is also supported by the U.N., has been forced to retreat to the rural town near Somalia’s southern border for fear of a coup.

Islamist leaders, who U.S. officials claim are controlled by al-Qaida operatives, have given Ethiopia until Tuesday, Dec. 19, to remove its troops or face Jihad.

“We do not intend to attack the government, but at the same time we are obliged to attack Ethiopians wherever they are,” the country’s top Islamist leader Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys said Friday, according to a Reuters report.

Witnesses and experts estimate thousands of Ethiopian troops crossed the border into Somalia earlier this year in a clandestine effort by the Ethiopian government that went largely unnoticed by the international media.

“Our country has been invaded by Ethiopia… we should have thrown them out a long time ago,” Aweys said.

On Friday, Matt Bryden of the International Crisis Group, who recently visited Somalia, told National Public Radio, the country is in grave danger of war.

“On the frontline between Ethiopian troops and the [Islamic] courts tensions are very high,” Bryden said. “There have been more frequent clashes in recent weeks and more casualties on both sides and I think the potential for this now erupting into a full scale war in the coming weeks is very high indeed.”

The tensions come as American officials have stepped up diplomatic pressure on the Islamic Courts, accusing the Muslim militia of being run by al-Qaida operatives and urging the U.N. Security Council to intervene.

“The Council of Islamic Courts is now controlled by East Africa al-Qaida cell individuals,” U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Jendayi Frazer told a news conference Thursday. “The top layer of the court are extremists. They are terrorists,” she added.

The Security Council has taken steps to help avoid a regional conflict.

On Dec. 6, backed the U.S., the council approved a resolution deploying a regional peacekeeping force into Somalia to help quell the violence.