Somalia War Threatens to Go Regional

By Stephen Mbogo | July 7, 2008 | 8:17 PM EDT

Nairobi, Kenya ( - Eastern Africa could be entering a period of new instability, sparked by a conflict in Somalia that has already drawn in Ethiopia and Eritrea, regional analysts warned.

Ethiopia is threatening to send troops across the border into Somalia to defend the country's transitional government from resurgent Islamist forces, The U.N. and others claim some Ethiopian troops have already entered Somalia, although Addis Ababa denies this.

Augusta Muchai of the human security think-tank Institute of Security Studies said the international community should move into Somalia and "make a positive impact" before the conflict escalates into a regional proxy war.

"We need to resolve these issues now before they escalate," she said. "The main problem will be increased availability of illicit small arms and increased instability."

Muchai cautioned that there were groups already keen to supply arms to the region, a reason underlining the importance of an international force in the region.

Abdikarin Farah, the transitional government's envoy to the African Union (A.U.) warned that the conflict was now a regional problem that would bring further insecurity and extremism.

The largely toothless transitional government, based in Baidoa, some 150 miles from the capital, Mogadishu, has long been calling for the deployment of international troops.

The AU's Peace and Security Council issued a communiqu/'e9 earlier calling for peacekeepers to be sent as soon as possible.

But the Islamic Court Union (ICU), the Islamist body now controlling much of the territory in Somalia, is opposed to the deployment of a force.

The ICU is headed by Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, listed by the U.N. as an associate of the al-Qaeda terrorist network.

The Islamists, who seized control of Mogadishu and surrounding areas by defeating a coalition of warlords and businessmen, say they will run the territory they control under the Islamic law.

Ethiopia, a predominantly Christian country, is not the only outsider intervening in the conflict. Eritrea, which has had a long running armed conflict with Ethiopia, is giving military and moral support to the ICU, according to intelligence sources in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi.

U.N. envoy Francois Fall, who visited the opposing sides in Somalia, has called on the external actors "to exercise maximum restraint and not to interfere at this particular moment in Somalia."

The U.S. also urged both Ethiopia and Eritrea not to be drawn into the conflict.

U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs Jendayi Frazer said hardliners among the Islamists were keen to extend their territory and had been inviting foreign fighters to enter the fray to achieve that goal.

Peace talks between the ICU and transitional Somali authority, brokered by the Arab League, stalled when the Islamists walked out, protesting the presence of Ethiopian troops on Somali soil.

The ICU has since issued a declaration of war against Ethiopia.

Regional security analyst Mike Otieno said leaving the Somalia groups to resolve the conflict would only exacerbate it and end up destabilizing the whole region.

"What is need is a strong, swift military and diplomatic muscle from the U.N. or the African Union to find a lasting solution in Somalia."

Somalia has been reduced to anarchy since warlords toppled a dictatorial government in 1991, and then fought amongst each other for control.

Almost two years ago, the U.N. supported the establishment of a transitional government. Based first in Kenya because of the unstable situation in Somalia itself, it later moved to Baidoa, and was later to have relocated to Mogadishu. With the capital now in Islamist hands, its future is uncertain.

Ethiopia says the government needs outside support if it is not to collapse.

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