MOGADISHU (AFP) â€” Somalia’s powerful Islamists Tuesday said they were finalising plans to fight Ethiopian forces deployed in the lawless country as a seven-day ultimatum for Addis Ababa to pull out its troops was due to expire.
But as Islamic fighters and government troops, backed by Ethiopian forces, girded for an all-out war, the Islamists said they might not attack immediately.
And the government, despite keeping its troops on alert, told the Islamists to stop playing games and immediately resume dialogue aimed at putting the country on a steady path to peace.
“The decision to attack the Ethiopians was already reached, but we are now in the last stages of preparing for the full-scale war,” top Islamic commander Mohammad Ibrahim Bilal told AFP.
“I cannot say we will start fighting today or tomorrow, but we expect a heavy war as long as Ethiopians stay inside our territory,” added Bilal, who commands Islamic fighters in frontlines near the government seat in Baidoa, about 250 kilometres northwest of the capital Mogadishu.
“I have heard about people saying the Islamic courts have halted their plan for jihad, this is baseless statement, we shall never renege on our promise to fight Ethiopian invaders,” he explained.
Information Minister Ali Jama said the government had prepared for any eventuality, but told the Islamists to stop playing games and resume peace talks which collapsed last November.
“The threats do not concern… the Islamists are playing games and we are not interested in their games,” Jama told AFP.
“The government will pursue to road to reconciliation and dialogue and we are ready to peace talks with the Islamists,” said Jama, adding that the Cabinet was discussing the best way to resume dialogue.
“We welcome any suggestion from anyone that can help put talks back on track,” he added.
Over the weekend, top Islamist official Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed said the movement was prepared for “dialogue” with Ethiopia.
Ahmed and the speaker of the Somali parliament, Sharif Hassan Sheikh Aden, announced a deal, reached in Yemen, to bring the Islamists and the government back to the negotiating table after Arab League-mediated peace talks collapsed last month.
Officials said several Western and African diplomats have been lobbying both sides to refrain from fresh skirmishes, which could compound the misery of millions of people in the poverty-stricken nation.
The Islamists, who control swathes of southern and central Somalia and are accused of links to Al Qaeda, have already declared a holy war on Ethiopian forces and claimed first blood in recent skirmishes with Addis Ababa troops.
Ethiopia has sent several hundred military trainers and advisers to help the Somali government, but denies widespread reports it has deployed thousands of combat troops to Somalia to forestall a feared Islamist advance towards Baidoa, the only city held by the transitional administration.
Analysts have warned that an all-out war in Somalia would engulf the whole Horn of Africa region, drawing in Ethiopia’s archfoe Eritrea, as both countries are accused of fighting a proxy war in the lawless country.
The Islamists have rejected the recent UN approval of deployment of peacekeepers to protect the government, with hardline clerics vowing to attack any foreign troops stepping into Somalia.