Somalia’s Islamists have declared war on Ethiopia and accused the country of launching a full-scale invasion after its troops attacked and briefly held a strategic hilltop town yesterday, according to witnesses.
Leading figures in the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), a loose-knit alliance that now holds sway over much of the war-torn east African country, called for an uprising against forces from neighbouring Ethiopia, after troops arrived in the town of Bur Haqaba.
“Ethiopian troops have intentionally invaded our land,” said a leading UIC figure, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed. Considered a moderate among the Islamists and wearing combat fatigues and holding an AK-47 assault rifle, he told a news conference in the capital, Mogadishu, that Islamic forces were on full alert. “I urge all the Somali people to wage holy war against the Ethiopians,” he said.
Sheikh Yusuf Indahaadde, the national security chairman for the Islamic group, also called for military action, and claimed that 35,000 Ethiopian troops were on Somali soil. “This is a declaration of war,” Sheikh Indahaadde said. “We will not wait any more. We will defend the integrity of our land.”
Power in Somalia is split between the Islamic Courts, the interim government and a number of warlords who hold a shrinking amount of territory.
The increasingly isolated interim government exercises little real authority over its territory and has in effect been encircled in the city of Baidoa, 150 miles from Mogadishu, where it has been given military assistance by Ethiopia.
Residents of Bur Haqaba, 40 miles outside Baidoa on the main road to Mogadishu, say government fighters backed up by Ethiopians took the town, before the Islamists recaptured it several hours later. No fighting has been reported in either takeover, with each side withdrawing rather than confronting the other’s advance.
The Ethiopian government has so far denied having any military presence inside Somalia, despite numerous eye-witness reports from residents, diplomats and international monitors.
An Ethiopian foreign ministry official told the BBC yesterday that there were “no Ethiopian troops across the border. The UIC are using Ethiopia as a pretext to hide their motives behind a curtain.” Independent witnesses said a column of 200 Ethiopian troops were on the move in Baidoa yesterday.