MOGADISHU (AP) â€” A senior leader of Somalia’s Islamists urged Ethiopians Monday to revolt against their government, calling it an oppressive regime led by an unpopular minority ethnic group.
Tensions between Ethiopia, which backs Somalia’s weakened government, and the Islamic group that controls much of the south of Somalia have been mounting in recent months. So far they have avoided any direct clashes, though the rhetoric on both sides has been fiery, raising fears of a conflict that could engulf the Horn of Africa region.
“I dare you to come and fight us. Do not just run,” Islamist leader Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys said, directing his words at Ethiopia in an address before thousands of Somalis gathered in the capital, Mogadishu, to celebrate the end of the fasting month of Ramadan.
“We urge Ethiopian people, who are not part of this aggression against Somalia, to revolt against and remove the oppressive regime led by [Ethiopia Prime Minister] Meles Zenawi,” Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, said at the same event.
In other towns, Somalia’s Islamist leaders made similar calls, threatening to drive Ethiopian forces from Baidoa, the only town the Somali government controls, some 250 kilometres northwest of Mogadishu.
Ethiopia, where nearly half the 77 million population is Muslim, is fearful of a neighbouring fundamentalist state. It consistently has denied that its forces are in Somalia, but on Thursday Meles acknowledged that his troops were training Somali government forces.
Eritrea, which fought a border war with Ethiopia that ended in 2000, is accused of providing military support to the Islamic group.
Aweys’ comments came as Somali government troops withdrew from a strategic hilltop town Monday, a resident said.
Government troops, backed by Ethiopian forces, took control of Bur Haqaba, 60 kilometres east of Baidoa, on Saturday. “There was a preparation for war all night long but when we saw government troops pulling out the city at around 6:30am, our fear of war subsided,” traditional leader Abdullahi Malaq Kerow told The Associated Press. “Local militias fear that the pullout is just a tactical retreat by the government side, so they have not entered [the town] yet.” One government soldier was shot to death after failing to pull out, another local resident, Ahmed Osman, told the AP by telephone. Officials were not immediately available to confirm the details.
Islamist officials said they re-entered the town Monday morning after the government forces pulled out. Leader Mohammad Ibrahim Bilal said an Islamic law court would be established there, and vowed the town would become one of his movement’s biggest bases.
Meanwhile, in Mogadishu, the Islamic courts opened their own official radio station, Voice of Somalia, on Monday.
Officials said it would be used to “educate Somalis about what is right and what is wrong.” International media groups have accused the Islamists of suppressing some media freedom in the war-ravaged country.
Somalia has not had an effective national government since 1991, when warlords overthrew dictator Mohammad Siad Barre and then turned on one another, throwing the country into anarchy.
The current government was formed in 2004 with UN help in hopes of restoring order after years of bloodshed.
It has never asserted much authority, and the Islamic group, trying to fill the power vacuum, seized control of much southern Somalia in June.