Jihad threat after troops enter Somalia

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Islamists controlling the Somali capital, Mogadishu, vowed to "wage a jihadi war" after Ethiopian troops crossed the border into the country last night. International observers have warned that Somalia is on the brink of a conflict that could be as bloody as the civil war 15 years ago in which 300,000 died.

Ethiopia sent troops to bolster the weak transitional government, based at Baidoa, and threatened to "crush" the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) if it attacked the town. More than 100 Ethiopian army vehicles were seen entering Somalia, and witnesses reported that troops in Ethiopian army uniform were in Baidoa. Ethiopia's government denied that any of its troops were in Somalia, but as many as 5,000 Ethiopian troops could have already crossed the border.

The Islamists control much of southern Somalia after defeating an alliance of US-backed warlords in Mogadishu last month. Ali Mohamed Gedi, the interim Somali prime minister, claimed this week that the Islamists were preparing to attack Baidoa.

The latest developments come after the UIC moved to within less than 40 miles of the town on Wednesday night. A senior member of the UIC claimed that the group would soon enter Baidoa, but within hours the fighters had retreated, taking with them 150 government troops who defected.

Ethiopia's Information Minister, Berhan Hailu, said his country would use "all means at our disposal to crush the Islamist group" if they tried to attack Baidoa". Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia's Prime Minister, is understood to fear an extremist Islamic state on his doorstep.

Sheikh Mukhtar Robow, in charge of defence for the UIC, said: 'God willing, we will remove the Ethiopians in our country and wage a jihadi war against them."

John Prendergast, of the think-tank International Crisis Group, said the potential confrontation "threatens to be as intense as the 1991-1992 civil war that killed 300,000 and provoked the US intervention". US troops entered Somalia in 1992 as part of a United Nations humanitarian mission to bring security to the country. But in 1993, 18 US Army Rangers were killed after two Black Hawk helicopters were shot down, prompting the US to pull out.

The transitional government, which was set up in Kenya in 2004, has been restricted to Baidoa, 130 miles north-east of Mogadishu; it is not safe for them to move. The government, which is backed by the UN, has been unable to bring peace or stability to a country that has been without a functioning government since 1991.

Less than two months after the Islamists took control of Mogadishu, however, a semblance of law and order has returned. Security checkpoints, which warlords used to extract money, have been taken down, immediately lowering the price of food. Fears that the UIC will introduce hardline sharia law remain, however. Gunmen have opened fire at cinemas showing World Cup matches and thieves have been stoned to death.