Global Policy Forum

Experts See Proxy War Under Way in Somalia


By Mohamed Sheikh Nor

Associated Press
July 26, 2006

A mysterious Russian-built cargo plane believed to be loaded with weapons landed in this capital Wednesday, setting off a fresh round of allegations that Somalia has become a proxy battleground for its neighbors Eritrea and Ethiopia.

The United States and other Western powers have cautioned outsiders against meddling in Somalia, which has no single ruling authority and can be manipulated by anyone with money and guns. But there's little sign the warning has been heeded. Somalia's virtually powerless government charged on Wednesday that the Ilyushin-76, only the second flight to land at Mogadishu International Airport in a decade, was packed with land mines, bombs and guns. It said the shipment had come from Eritrea, which supports the Islamic militia that has seized the capital along with most of southern Somalia.

Just hours later, a UN envoy confirmed that troops from Ethiopia, Eritrea's foe, were in Somalia to protect the defenseless government from the advancing Islamic forces. Somali government leaders and Ethiopia's Foreign Ministry previously have denied Ethiopian soldiers were in the county. However, many witnesses have confirmed their presence. Ethiopia and Eritrea fought a bloody border war from 1998-2000, and have since backed rebel groups to destabilize each other. Somalia could become a new front in their conflict.

"Ethiopia and Eritrea are competing throughout the region, opening up new fronts in their Cold War whenever the opportunity arises," said John Prendergast, a senior adviser with the International Crisis Group, which monitors conflict zones. The United States also has been involved in Somalia. It secretly backed nonreligious militias that were driven out of Mogadishu by the Islamists, and now supports the government. The United States has accused the Islamic militia of ties to al-Qaida, whose leader, Osama bin Laden, called for support of the militia in a recent recording. The Associated Press also recently obtained videotape of Arab Islamic fighters alongside Somali militiamen.

"There are external parties involved on all sides," said Jendayi Frazer, the US State Department's top Africa official. "This is a problem." The new proxy fight between Ethiopia and Eritrea is officially denied by both countries, despite witness accounts and reports by the United Nations describing Somalia's plight. A UN committee monitoring the arms embargo on Somalia named Ethiopia, Eritrea and Yemen as countries backing different factions fighting inside the country. Another country went unnamed in the report, but was widely believed to be the United States.

"Eritrea is only in there because of Ethiopia," said Omar Jamal, executive director of the Somalia Justice Advocacy Center in St. Paul, Minn. "The US is simply extending its war on terrorism." Eritrea's information minister, Ali Abdu, told the AP on Wednesday that his country was not sending arms to the Islamic militia, and charged that Ethiopia was "exploiting the current situation in order to solve their historical dispute with Somalia." Ethiopia and Somalia fought a war in the 1970s. Ethiopia's foreign minister was not immediately available for comment Wednesday. Wednesday, an AP reporter watched the Ilyushin-76 land, but was quickly ordered to leave by Islamic militiamen. The plane's tail carried a flag from Kazakhstan, a former Soviet republic that often makes its planes available for charter.

The UN special envoy to Somalia, Francois Lonseny Fall, said Wednesday a small number of Ethiopian troops are in Somalia. On Tuesday, he traveled to the only town controlled by the government, Baidoa, which is 155 miles from Mogadishu.

"During my discussions with the government, I got the clear impression that Ethiopian troops were around Baidoa, but not in the city," Fall said from his office in neighboring Kenya. Somalia has been without an effective central government since warlords toppled dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991 and then turned on each other, carving much of the country into armed camps ruled by violence and clan law.

The government was established nearly two years ago with the support of the UN to serve as a transitional body to help Somalia emerge from anarchy. But the leadership, which includes some warlords linked to the violence of the past, has failed to establish any power.

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