NAIROBI, Kenya – Thousands of Ethiopian and Eritrean troops are in Somalia, backing opposing sides in the struggle for control of the strategic country, according to a confidential U.N. briefing paper. The involvement of the two Horn of Africa rivals could set the stage for a regional war.
Islamic radicals, said by the U.N. to be backed by Eritrea, held rallies in several Somali cities and called for a holy war on Ethiopia and the internationally backed government it supports.
The U.N. report, dated Oct. 26 and obtained by the Associated Press on Friday, cites diplomatic sources in estimating that “between 6,000-8,000 Ethiopians and 2,000 fully equipped Eritrean troops are now inside Somalia supporting” the internationally recognized government and the Islamic group known as the Council of Islamic Courts, respectively.
“Both sides in the Somali conflict are reported to have major outside backers – the government supported by Ethiopia, Uganda and Yemen; the Islamic courts receiving aid from Iran, Libya, Saudi Arabia and Gulf States,” the report added.
The transitional government and the Council of Islamic Courts have been girding for battle in recent weeks. Government forces, supported by Ethiopian military advisers, have been seen digging trenches near Baidoa, the only town the U.N.-backed government controls.
The Islamic courts have deployed forces at a strategic town between Baidoa and their headquarters in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, 150 miles to the southeast.
The military moves could be mere posturing ahead of peace talks scheduled for next week in Khartoum, Sudan, but most observers are pessimistic about the chances for an agreement and fear major fighting could follow if talks fail.
“Clearly, the situation is rapidly deteriorating, and an all-out war is possible,” the report said.
Ethiopia and Eritrea fought a two-year border war that remains unresolved. The top U.S. diplomat to Africa, Jendayi Frazer, last week accused Eritrea of using Somalia to open a second front against Ethiopia.
In Washington on Thursday, Sean McCormack, a State Department spokesman, called on Ethiopia and Eritrea not to further aggravate the situation in Somalia.
“There are tensions between Ethiopia and Eritrea even removing Somalia from the equation. When you add Somalia into the equation, each of Ethiopia and Eritrea’s various perceived equities with the various groups in Somalia, then it becomes very complex, a complex situation,” he said.
The briefing paper was written to help senior U.N. officials map a strategy on how to provide aid to one of the most impoverished countries in the world, one that has not had an effective central government since 1991.
One problem facing the United Nations is the listing of the Islamic courts’ leader, Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys, on a list of people with ties to terrorism. U.N. policy severely restricts how much contact U.N. officials can have with people with alleged ties to terror organizations.
Ethiopian officials have insisted they have only a few hundred military advisers assisting the government, but international and local officials have previously put the number in the thousands.
The Somali transitional government has repeatedly accused Eritrea of arming and supporting their rivals in the Islamic courts, something that both Eritrean and Islamic officials have repeatedly denied.
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