Ethiopia edges closer to Somalia invasion

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The growing conflict between Ethiopia and Somali Islamists escalated further yesterday as Ethiopian tanks rolled towards the front line and the Islamists announced that ground troops would begin attacks today.

Ethiopia, which has always rejected claims that it has combat troops operating in Somalia, last night hinted that it would be prepared to launch an official invasion.

In a statement released by its Foreign Ministry, Ethiopia claimed it "has been patient so far". But, the statement warned, "there is a limit to this". Fighting in Somalia continued for a fourth consecutive day with each side hammering the other with heavy artillery and rockets. Two fronts have opened up near the town of Baidoa in central Somalia, where the weak transitional government is based.

Witnesses said nearly 20 Ethiopian tanks were heading towards Daynunay, a government military base 12 miles south-east of Baidoa, while fighting has also been heavy in Idaale, 44 miles south-west of Baidoa, which the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) claimed to have captured on Thursday.

Some 500 Ethiopian troops and eight tanks were seen headed for Bandiradley, a town in central Somalia controlled by the Islamists. The UIC claimed that Ethiopian troops were also on their way to Galkaayo, a town close to the semi-autonomous Puntland region, prompting fears that the province, which has been relatively peaceful, could soon be sucked into the conflict.

Both sides claimed they had killed hundreds but neither declaration could be independently verified.

So far most of the fighting has been done from a distance using heavy weapons, but the Islamists plan to send ground troops to the front line today.

"Our troops have not started to attack," the UIC's deputy spokesman, Ibrahim Shukri, said. "From tomorrow [Saturday] the attack will start."

War-ravaged Somalia, which has been without a functional central government for 15 years, has been on the brink of a fresh conflict for the past six months. The transitional government, which was set up in 2004 with the support of the United Nations, has struggled to provide leadership or gain any authority over most of the country.

In stark contrast, the UIC has quickly gained control over large swaths of central and southern Somalia, bringing an element of law and order to towns previously controlled by rival warlords.

Despite attempts to broker a peace deal between the government and the UIC, both sides have been edging closer to war. The current fighting is the most serious in Somalia since the UIC drove US-backed warlords out of the capital, Mogadishu, in June.

Ethiopia, which fears an Islamist state on its border, vowed to "crush" the UIC if it attacked the Somali government. Reports that Ethiopia had sent troops to Baidoa to support the beleaguered government first surfaced in July.

Ethiopia has always denied the presence of combat troops in Somalia but a recent UN report estimated as many as 8,000 Ethiopian soldiers could have crossed the border.

The same UN report also accused Ethiopia's bitter rival, Eritrea, of arming the Islamists and sending some 2,000 troops in support.

The UIC has consistently claimed its opposition is to the Ethiopian troops in Somalia, not the government itself. The organisation's secretary, Ibrahim Duley, yesterday said: "We call upon the Somalis to rise up and join in the jihad against our enemy Ethiopia."

The United Nations yesterday accused both sides of using child soldiers. Calling for an "immediate end" to the conflict, the UN said: "This conflict will push the children of Somalia into further dire crisis." The fighting has also prevented aid agencies from reaching hundreds of thousands of Somalis made homeless by recent flooding.