Somalia: Ethiopia-Eritrea proxy war?

From Reuters, July 29:

The United States sent its most explicit warning yet to Horn of Africa foes Eritrea and Ethiopia on Saturday to stay out of the escalating crisis in Somalia where they are believed to be backing rival sides.

“There are many foreign elements in Somalia right now,” U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer said, citing reports Ethiopia was sending troops to back the interim government and Eritrea arms for rival Islamists.

“Neither the Union of Islamic Courts nor the Transitional Federal Government can take the high ground by saying the other is violating Somali sovereignty…they’ve all invited in foreigners, all been backed by foreign forces,” she added.

Frazer, speaking to reporters on a visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo to monitor elections there, said it was crucial to stop Somalia becoming a regional crisis. “You want to keep Ethiopians and Eritreans out of Somalia, that they don’t take their border conflict and move it into the Somalia venue,” she said.

Diplomats believe Addis Ababa and Asmara, which went to war in 1998-2000 and still argue over their border, are using Somalia’s government-Islamist standoff as a proxy for their own feud.

Ethiopia has sent several thousand troops to back the government at its provincial base Baidoa, witnesses say.

Eritrea has armed the Islamists in the past, according to the U.N., and is believed by many to be still sending arms and probably advisers to their stronghold in Mogadishu.

Addis Ababa fears a hardline Islamist state as its neighbour, accuses Mogadishu’s new rulers of being terrorists, and also fears their possible aspirations to incorporate ethnic Somali regions such as Ethiopia’s Ogaden.

Asmara, on the other hand, is motivated primarily by spite for Ethiopia, analysts believe.

“It’s conceivable there are Ethiopians in Somalia and it’s also reported the Eritreans are arming the Union of Islamic Courts and perhaps even putting military advisers in,” Frazer said.

“Best hope is dialogue”

Adding to a highly volatile situation, some foreign Muslim militants are also believed to be in Somalia.

And despite its high tone, the U.S. government is accused precipitating the crisis by sending money to a self-styled “anti-terrorism” coalition of warlords earlier in the year, inflaming public sentiment in favour of the Islamists.

Frazer said the international community must remain focused on supporting the interim government, which was set up in 2004 in a Western- and African-backed peace deal for Somalia.

“The situation is extremely volatile and I think that the best hope for the people of Somalia is that they come together in a dialogue…to try to decide their future,” she said. “If it (the government) is in fact undermined it will set the Somali people back many, many years and probably ensure a future of chaos, they’ve had 15 years (already),” she said.

Some excerpts from the July 29 New York Times coverage:

A high-ranking minister of the transitional government of Somalia was brazenly assassinated Friday outside a mosque, worsening fears that the country is headed back toward chaos and possibly even a broader regional war.

Abdallah Deerow Isaq, the minister for federal and constitutional affairs, was ambushed by a lone gunman in central Baidoa as he walked out of Friday Prayer, and witnesses said the city immediately exploded into riots. The transitional government had already been under siege, facing powerful Islamic foes in the capital, Mogadishu, and poisonous dissension in Baidoa, the provincial city where it is based because it is too weak to survive in Mogadishu.

In the past few days, United Nations officials have said that hundreds of phantom-like troops from Ethiopia have poured across the border, disappearing into the bush. Mysterious planes have landed in Mogadishu. Young gunmen in a kaleidoscope of camouflage cruise the streets all over the country, their true allegiance one big question mark.

Many fear that the transitional government will either disintegrate because of clan differences or be crushed by the Islamists in a war that could spill far beyond Somalia’s borders.

Ethiopia and Eritrea, bitter enemies, are suspected of arming the two opposing sides, threatening to ignite ethnic and religious tensions across the Horn of Africa…

Meanwhile, Islamist leaders in Mogadishu are calling for a holy war as they sweep across a victimized landscape desperate for order, gobbling up territory, absorbing militias and ultimately heading, many people fear, for Baidoa, 150 miles away.

The Baidoa government is simultaneously struggling to quell the riots over the minister’s assassination and rushing to fortify buildings and field a national army. But its leaders admit they are outgunned. And a little paranoid. And divided.

Parliament meets in an old grain warehouse where politicians from different clans cannot seem to find consensus even with a common enemy breathing down their necks. Many people suspect that the constitution minister, who was from a powerful clan, was killed by forces within the feuding government. Baidoa authorities said Friday night that they had arrested five suspects, without disclosing who they were…

On Wednesday, a mysterious cargo jet landed in Mogadishu. On Thursday, the government in Baidoa reported two more planes, and immediately accused Eritrea of shipping weapons to the Islamists, which the Eritrean government promptly denied.

United Nations diplomats are shuttling between Baidoa and Mogadishu, urging both sides to negotiate. The Baidoa government will go to the Sudan next week for another round of peace talks with the Islamists, hoping to strike an accord with moderate clerics but fearing that the hard-liners hold the cards.

“It’s not our policy to fight,” said Ali Mohamed Gedi, the transitional government’s prime minister. “But the Islamists are expanding their muscles. It’s a very fragile time.”

In Mogadishu, residents are stockpiling batteries, bottled water and other staples. At a rally this past week, thousands packed into a soccer stadium and chanted, “Death to Ethiopia.”

See our last posts on Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea.