Ethiopian deaths spark fears of devastating war

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First two Ethiopian trucks were destroyed by land mines, then Islamic fighters opened fire on the convoy, which witnesses said was made up of more than 80 vehicles and headed for Baidoa, the headquarters of Somalia's transitional government.

By the time it was over six Ethiopian soldiers were dead, and as many as 20 injured, in a battle that many predict will be the opening salvo in a devastating regional war.

The shootout last Sunday - the first known battle between the forces jockeying for control in Somalia - could have devastating consequences for up to 12 countries, while bringing George Bush's War on Terror to the Horn of Africa. Washington and its Ethiopan ally like to paint the Islamic Courts as a terrorist umbrella backed up with thousands of jihadi fighters. However, the spreading crisis now threatens to draw in a wide array of belligerents, including hardline jihadi fighters and al Qaida operatives.

The Islamic Courts are a loose coalition of Islamists - including many moderates - drawn from the country's Hawiye clan, the most powerful group in southern Somalia, and have a well trained militia and independent sources of funding.

The movement's reputation for strict Islamic code was underscored this week, when nearly 100 people were arrested for watching a film in Merka, a seaside town about 100 kilometres (62 miles) from Mogadishu.

Yesterday hundreds of Ethiopian troops were seen patrolling a road leading to Somalia's transitional government headquarters after the brief but intense firefight in the area this week. Ethiopia has vowed to "crush" the Islamic Courts movement, which has ousted the country's government set up under UN auspices two years ago.

Ethiopia says it has sent "military advisers" - not soldiers - into Somalia. But the country's Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, has promised to send tens of thousands of troops across the border if the Council of Islamic Courts attacks.

Somalia has not had an effective government since 1991, when warlords overthrew the country's dictator and turned on each other. Formed with the help of the UN two years ago, the current administration has failed to assert any real control outside the southern town of Baidoa.

The rise of the Islamic Courts, and the prominence of jihadi Islamists within the organisation, has sent shock waves through the international community. Washington says the Courts are shielding al Qaida terrorists responsible for bombing its embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.

Kenya is alarmed by links between the Courts and its own Islamic dissidents. Ethiopia sees the courts as a direct threat and a proxy for its enemy Eritrea.

Egypt and Saudi Arabia have also for decades vied to ensure Somalia is little more than a satellite state.

A report prepared for the US State Department by the former US ambassador to Ethiopia and Somalia, Prof David Shinn, warns that 12 countries could be drawn into the conflict.

The report has underscored the reality that the perennial bloodshed and instability in Somalia is a product of a ferocious regional power struggle.