Somalia: US backing Ethiopian offensive?

Ethiopian troops seized towns throughout southern and central Somalia Dec. 25 and bombed the international airport at Mogadishu, in a dramatic escalation of a new offensive against Islamic militants who have taken power in much of Somalia. Ethiopian forces seized Baladweyne, a strategic town on the main road from the border into central Somalia, and Aadado. Ethiopian troops and allied Somali militiamen are reportedly advancing toward Jowhar, an Islamist stronghold 50 miles north of Mogadishu.

Ethiopia Dec. 24 acknowledged for the first time that it had thousands of troops inside Somalia, saying the Islamic Courts Union threatens its national security, and launched an offensive that included the bombing of four strategic towns in central and southern Somalia. (Boston Globe, Dec. 26)

The Somalia-based Garowe news service said Ethiopian warplanes bombed targets in Jawil and Kalabeyr villages in Hiran region, and Bandiradley town of Mudug region. Bandiradley lies on the main highway south of the Puntland autonomous region. Puntland militias under warlord Col. Abdi Qeybdiid fought alongside Ethiopian troops in the ground battle for Bandiradley town. (Garowe Online, Dec. 26)

Russian-made Ethiopian jets swept low over the capital at midmorning Dec. 25, dropping two bombs on Mogadishu International Airport. The leader of the Islamic militia, Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys, flew into the airport shortly after the attack; it was not clear if he was an intended target. Airstrikes also hit Baledogle Airport outside Mogadishu. (AP, Dec. 26)

Somalia-based Shabeelle Media Network also reported fighting around Iidaale in Bay region, with artillery fire being exchanged by the two sides. (Shabeelle Media Network via BBC Monitoring, Dec. 23)

UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres expressed deep concern Dec. 26 over the conflict in Somalia, warning that further displacement in the Horn of Africa could severely strain already overstretched relief efforts. (UNHCR press release, Dec. 26)

The United States Dec. 26 signaled its support for the Ethiopian offensive, calling it a response to “aggression.” State Department spokesperson Janelle Hironimus said Ethiopia was trying to stem the flow of outside arms shipments to the Islamists. Hironimus added that Washington was concerned about reports that the Islamists were using child soldiers and abusing Ethiopian captives.

Maj. Marie Boughen, a spokeswoman for the US Central Command, said no US troops were participating in the Ethiopian offensive or serving as advisers for it. Maj. Kelley Thibodeau, a spokeswoman for the task force of US military personnel in nearby Djibouti, put it this way: “The Americans don’t go forward with the Ethiopians. They are training Ethiopians in Ethiopia.”

However, sources in Nairobi said US surveillance planes were funneling battlefield intelligence to Ethiopian forces. (NYT, Dec. 26)

See our last post on the Horn of Africa.