The escalating conflict in the Horn of Africa lurched into a dangerous new phase yesterday as Ethiopian jets bombed the airport in Mogadishu just hours after Meles Zenawi, the Ethiopian Prime Minister, admitted that his country was at war with Somalia's Islamic Courts.
A second airport, Baledogle, the country's largest military airfield, was also attacked. The aim, Ethiopian officials said, was to prevent the Islamist fighters from bringing in military supplies.
This is no normal war between neighbours. The governments of both Somalia and Ethiopia are fighting on the same side against a coalition of Islamic Courts that has used well-trained militia to take control of most of southern and central Somalia since driving American-backed warlords out of Mogadishu in June.
Fighting raged for a seventh successive day across a 250-mile frontline as Somali troops, backed by Ethiopian soldiers, declared they had captured key towns from the Islamic Courts. The Red Cross said it was treating 445 people, combatants and civilians, injured during the fighting. "Anyone who has a gun but is not wearing a government uniform will be targeted as a terrorist," said Aden Garase, a Somali government soldier temporarily in charge of the key border town of Belet Weyne.
The United States claims the Courts are sheltering suspected terrorists with links to al-Qai'da, including those responsible for the bombings of US embassies in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam in 1998. And Jendayi Frazer, the US assistant secretary of state, this month claimed the Courts were run by an al-Qai'da cell.
Ethiopia, a predominantly Christian nation, is wary of having a radical Islamic state on its doorstep. US military officials are understood to have given Mr Meles a tacit green light for attacks against the Courts, despite officially claiming they have told Ethiopia to "stay out" of Somalia.
The increasingly impotent Somali government, set up in Kenya in 2004, carries little authority and has been confined to the town of Baidoa, some 130 miles west of Mogadishu. It has little military power of its and had to turn to Ethiopia for support.
Ethiopian troops have been seen inside Somalia since July but it was only on Sunday that Mr Meles admitted he had sent in a force. The Prime Minister said troops had entered Somalia "to protect the sovereignty of the nation and to blunt repeated attacks by Islamic Courts terrorists and anti-Ethiopian elements they are supporting".
Ethiopia has the region's best-equipped and trained armed forces, of 100,000 soldiers. But victory against Islamic Courts will not come easily. Few things unite Somalis in their fractured country riven by tensions between rival clans. But most share a loathing of Ethiopia, which has fought two wars with Somalia in the past 45 years. Hard-line elements within the Courts want to form a "Greater Somalia", including Somali districts in Ethiopia, Kenya and Djibouti. Some leaders have issued statements respecting the sovereignty of Somalia's neighbours and appear willing to strike a power-sharing deal with the government. But the aggressive rhetoric from Ethiopia and the US has strengthened the hand of the Courts.
Somalia's 10 million population has already been hard hit by the worst flooding in East Africa for 50 years, which has left more than one million homeless. A long and messy guerrilla war is already threatening to cut off food aid and few international aid agencies are left working in Somalia. Médecins Sans Frontières evacuated its last remaining international staff last week.Reuse content