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Last Updated: Thursday, 16 November 2006, 14:34 GMT
Threat of regional conflict over Somalia
By Paul Reynolds
World affairs correspondent, BBC News website

Three fighters training in UIC camp
Training camp for Union of Islamic Courts

A UN report claiming that a number of African and Middle East countries are helping to arm Islamic militants trying to seize control of Somalia has raised fears that there could be a regional conflict over this failed state in the Horn of Africa.

The fear in particular is that Ethiopia and Eritrea will come into conflict because they support opposite sides and might see in Somalia another battleground in which to continue the intermittent war over their own border dispute.

The United States is keeping a close eye on the crisis from its base in neighbouring Djibouti. The Americans are worried that if the UIC takes over the whole country or the majority of it and hardliners take over the UIC, Somalia could offer the kind of training bases for al-Qaeda elements that were once provided by the Taleban in Afghanistan.

Ethiopia supports the Transitional Federal government, which has fallen back on the western town of Baidoa near the Ethiopian border. It appears determined not to countenance an Islamic state next door. Eritrea backs the Islamist Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), which has taken control of the capital Mogadishu and large parts of the south of the country.

UN report details

The UN report, by the Security Council-mandated Somalia Monitoring Group, paints a vivid picture of outside countries piling in with weapons in contravention of the arms embargo imposed on Somalia back in 1992.

Map

It claims that Eritrea, Djibouti, Iran, Syria, Libya, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and even Hezbollah in Lebanon are providing arms and training for the UIC. Several of these governments have already denied doing so.

Iran is said to have sent three consignments this year, including 1,000 machine guns and 45 shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles. It is further claimed that Iran is interested in acquiring rights to uranium deposits in Somalia.

More than 700 Somali fighters are said to have gone to support and get training from Hezbollah.

Ethiopia, Yemen and Uganda are said to be supplying the transitional government.

Not everyone who follows Somalia believes everything the report says.

"The report should be taken seriously and it is clear that the arms embargo is not working, but the report is only as good as the information the monitors were given. One cannot be sure of the details," said Sally Healy, a Somalia watcher at Chatham House in London.

Wider picture

Nevertheless, the broad picture is a threatening one.

Talks between the Transitional Federal Institutions, which is how the UN now describes the weakened government authorities, and the UIC broke down in Khartoum recently, largely over UIC objections to the presence of Ethiopian troops around Baidoa.

"A war could suck in the whole region," said Sally Healy. "Ethiopia and Eritrea have their proxies and Eritrea is keen to get at Ethiopia because of the Ethiopian refusal to accept the ruling of the boundary commission on their border dispute. That is why the vigorously secular Eritreans support the Islamists of the UIC.

"The UIC tactics have been to negotiate surrenders with local clans and it is now nibbling at Puntland [a region of North East Somalia which has declared autonomy]. If Puntland defected to the UIC, the effect would be huge.

Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys
UIC hardliner Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys

"But one should not assume that the UIC will be like the Taleban. Many Somali expatriates are putting pressure on it not do so. If it is treated as an extremist organisation it might become one. There needs to be engagement with it. Some good news is coming from Mogadishu and even the port has re-opened."

There is a power struggle within the UIC between hardline and more moderate elements.

A man who has been named by the United States as a terrorist suspect, Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, leads the hardliners.

But another leader, Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, is seen as more moderate and anxious to develop links with the US, the EU and others.

Amending the arms embargo?

There is currently a debate in the UN about whether to lift the embargo in favour of the transitional government, which is led by President Abdullahi Yusuf.

A plan drawn up by the regional organisation the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), which sponsored the process leading to the transitional government after years of warlordism, proposed a "peace support" operation.

This could not be carried out without arming the transitional government and that cannot be done openly without amending the arms embargo.

With peace talks stalled, the prospects are for more fighting and while that lasts, there remains the threat of outsiders playing bigger and bigger roles.

Paul.Reynolds-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk


For an in-depth look at the growing security worries in East Africa tune into the BBC's Focus on Africa programme on Thursday 16 November at 1500 GMT and 1700 GMT.


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