The conflict between Somalia's transitional government and Islamic militants has escalated dangerously, as Islamist leaders threaten a "holy war" against advancing government troops and allied Ethiopian forces, a U.N. special envoy told the Security Council on Tuesday.
Relaying reports from U.N. representatives on the ground, envoy Francois Lonseny Fall said the situation was quickly deteriorating as government forces advanced on the Islamist-held capital, Mogadishu, from two directions. The soldiers have taken control of several towns in the southern part of the country that had been held by the Islamic Courts Union, Fall said, and have ordered the closure of the country's borders to keep out fighters from Eritrea and other nearby countries.
This month, the Security Council authorized a regional force to help protect the transitional government from threats by the Islamic Courts Union, despite warnings that such an intervention would spark a conflict that could drag in the entire Horn of Africa. The next day, clashes escalated.
Somali government forces have been bolstered by about 4,000 troops from neighboring Ethiopia, whose Christian government fears the spread of Islamic challengers across its borders. Ethiopian airplanes bombed the Mogadishu airport Monday to stop arms and foreign fighters from reaching the Islamic militias.
The fighting has dealt a blow to peace talks and heightens the humanitarian crisis in a country that has seen 16 years of anarchy, Fall said Tuesday.
"Somalia, I am afraid, will face a period of deepening conflict and heightened instability, which would be disastrous for the long-suffering people of Somalia and could also have serious consequences for the entire region," Fall said.
Somalia has not had an effective government since 1991, when warlords overthrew dictator Mohamed Siad Barre and allowed the country to fall into anarchy. The U.N. helped set up a central government in Somalia two years ago, but the regime has been able to control only the city of Baidoa, where it is based. In June, the Islamic militias took over and began to restore order in Mogadishu.
In an emergency meeting Tuesday, the Security Council agreed that all parties should stop fighting and return to talks, but it failed to agree on a statement demanding that all foreign fighters leave the country. The Somali deputy ambassador insisted after the meeting that the Ethiopian troops were welcome and necessary.
"Any Ethiopian forces there were invited by the legitimate government and they will stay as long as we need them," said the envoy, Idd Beddel Mohamed.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi told reporters in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, that his goal was not to defeat the militias but to severely damage their military power and allow both sides to return to peace talks, the Associated Press reported. Meles said his troops would not take on the militias in Mogadishu but would surround the city to contain them.
The Ethiopian airstrikes helped galvanize the Islamic Courts Union, an alliance of religious leaders who came together to defeat the U.S.-backed warlords this year. American and Ethiopian officials claim the Islamist group has ties to terrorists, including Al Qaeda.
In Mogadishu, one of the Islamist leaders, Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, said the group's fight against Ethiopia "will never end and will reach other countries and other cities," raising fears among diplomats of suicide bombings in Addis Ababa. He also blamed the African Union for allowing Ethiopia to "occupy" Somalia, and said the AU would "take the responsibility of any consequence."
He denied that the Islamic Courts Union had links to Al Qaeda. But he said thousands of young men were signing up as "jihadists" to join the fight.
Special correspondent Abukar Albadri in Mogadishu contributed to this report.