Somalia edges closer to war as peace talks fail

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Somalia edged closer to war yesterday as peace talks between the weak, transitional government and Islamists who control half the country were cancelled.

Ethiopian troops, who crossed the border three days ago to support the Somali government, made further incursions yesterday, while a leading figure in the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) said anyone siding with the Ethiopians would be considered a traitor.

The UIC, which defeated an alliance of US-backed warlords last month to take control of the capital, Mogadishu, refused to attend the talks, blaming the arrival of the Ethiopian troops.

As many as 5,000 Ethiopian soldiers are believed to have crossed the border. The UIC has vowed to wage "jihadi war" against Ethiopia, while Ethiopia has promised to "crush" the Islamists if they attempt to take control of Baidoa, the town where the government is based.

The heat of the rhetoric was increased further when Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, a senior Islamist leader who is considered to be one of the more moderate figures within the UIC's leadership, said Somalia is now "under attack". Ethiopian troops yesterday increased their presence in Baidoa, helping to guard the parliament, airport and presidential palace. There were also reports that they had taken control of a second town in western Somalia. Witnesses claimed around 200 Ethiopian soldiers moved into Waajid, 40 miles north of Baidoa, and seized the airstrip.

Fears were raised last week that the Islamists might attack Baidoa when UIC forces moved less than 40 miles away. A UIC spokesman claimed the group was ready to attack the seat of the transitional government, but within hours, the troops had retreated. Unconfirmed reports yesterday suggested that a column of 50 heavily armed military vehicles had left Mogadishu for Baidoa.

Peace negotiations were due to restart in Sudan's capital, Khartoum, yesterday after the Somali government refused to attend planned talks last weekend. They blamed the UIC for breaking an agreed truce. Yesterday it was the Islamists' turn to boycott talks.

Analysts now fear that negotiations will be replaced by a conflict that is likely to include many of Somalia's neighbours.

Ethiopia, which shares a long, porous border with Somalia, is determined to prevent the rise of a radical Islamist state on its doorstep. As well as sharing American fears that Somalia could become a "safe haven" for terrorist cells, Ethiopia has concerns that a strong Islamist government may wish to create a Greater Somalia, annexing the Ogaden region within Ethiopia's borders.

A UN report earlier this year accused Eritrea, a long-time enemy of Ethiopia, of supplying weapons and personnel to the Islamists. Across the Gulf of Aden, to Somalia's north, Yemen is also thought to be providing support to the Islamists.

The transitional government, led by President Abdullahi Yusuf, was formed in Kenya in 2004. It was the 14th attempt to form a functioning government since Somalia collapsed into anarchy in 1991, when the military dictator Mohamed Siad Barre was overthrown.

The government is based in Baidoa because it is not strong enough to move to Mogadishu. It has little public support and has been unable to restore order. A UN arms embargo has made it hard to form a national army. The news that Ethiopian troops are backing the government is unlikely to make it any more popular.