Somalia says al-Qa'ida is provoking all-out war

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Somalia faces the prospect of all-out war, the country's Foreign Minister has said, warning that Islamist forces in the country are receiving support from al-Qa'ida.

As peace talks between the fragile transitional government and the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) broke down, Ismael Mohamoud Hurreh told The Independent that war would break out in the Horn of Africa if the Islamic Courts "are not checked definitively".

He accused the Islamic Courts, which control the capital, Mogadishu, plus large swaths of southern Somalia, of bringing radical Islamist fighters into the country. "They are coming by ship. Look who is coming through Mogadishu port - al-Qai'da, people from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Eritrea, Yemen and Chechnya."

Talks between Islamists and the fragile UN-backed government fell apart this week after mediators could not manage to get both sides on to the same floor of a luxury Khartoum hotel, let alone in the same room.

The Islamic Courts refused to begin negotiations until Ethiopia withdrew all its troops from Somali soil. Ethiopia has been accused of sending troops into Somalia to back up the beleaguered government since July. A memo, leaked last week, revealed that the UN believes between 6,000 and 8,000 Ethiopian troops are now in or near Somalia.

Ethiopia's Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, admitted last month that "a few hundred" Ethiopian soldiers acting as "military advisers" were assisting the Somali government.

Mr Hurreh said Ethiopia was ready to help the transitional government, which was set up in 2004, if war broke out. "The Ethiopians are staying in their borders," he claimed, "but if the Islamic Courts move against the transitional government they will intervene."

While Ethiopia is coy about the number of troops it has stationed in or near Somalia, it has become increasingly outspoken about its support for the weak government, which is based in the town of Baidoa, 130 miles from Mogadishu.

Mr Meles is wary of a having an Islamic state on Ethiopia's border. Some of the Islamic Courts' more hardline elements speak of a desire to annex the Ogaden region of Ethiopia, forming a "Greater Somalia".

Ethiopia is not the only country accused of arming one of the belligerents. Eritrea, which fought a war with Ethiopia between 1998 and 2000 and is still locked in a border dispute, is accused of sending troops to bolster the Islamists. Some 2,000 Eritrean soldiers are believed to be in Somalia. The Horn of Africa is becoming a battleground in the US-led "war on terror". US assistance for Somali warlords trying to capture suspected Islamic terrorists was the catalyst for the Islamic Courts to defeat the warlords in Mogadishu. Since then, the US is believed to have been offering assistance to Ethiopia in an effort to halt the Islamic Courts.

The peace talks in Khartoum was the third attempt to bring the two sides together. Observers placed the blame for the talks' failure on the transitional government. "They weren't really serious," said one diplomatic source. "They know the Ethiopians will back them up (if the Islamic Courts attack Baidoa). And Ethiopia knows the US will back them up."

The same diplomat also raised the possibility that the international community may have to start recognising the Islamic Courts as the main "authority" in Somalia, in effect sidelining the UN-backed government. "We may have to take a leap of faith on the Courts," the source said.

Many in the international community have been keen to allow the two major regional bodies, the League of Arab States and the regional Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (Igad), to play a major role in talks. But chairmanship of Igad passes from Kenya to Ethiopia in March (something the Islamic Courts will not tolerate), while the Palestinians are next in line to take over as head of the Arab League - raising the bizarre prospect of the Somali peace talks (if they are ever restarted) moving from Khartoum to Gaza.