Page last updated at 09:18 GMT, Thursday, 20 December 2007

Ethiopia PM attacks UN on Somalia

Ethiopia Prime Minister Meles Zenawi
Mr Meles says African Union peacekeepers are needed in Somalia

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has accused the UN of playing a damaging role in the Somali crisis.

"The situation there - as hard as it is - it could do with less hype and exaggeration," he told the BBC.

The UN says fighting between insurgents and Ethiopian-backed government forces in the capital, Mogadishu, has created Africa's worst humanitarian crisis.

The UN humanitarian co-ordinator for Somalia Eric Laroche has dismissed Mr Meles' criticism.

He told the BBC it was hardly surprising that there was a disagreement, since the Ethiopian government was a party to the conflict, while the UN was neutral.

The UN has estimated that 60% of Mogadishu residents have fled their homes.

Ethiopian troops intervened in Somalia a year ago, when they helped government forces oust Islamists from much of southern Somalia.

There has not been any indiscriminate firing on our side because it would be completely suicidal for us
Ethiopian PM Meles Zenawi

On Wednesday the UN children's fund called for the creation of safe zones for about 1.5m children, whose lives it says have been affected by conflict.

But Mr Meles said the UN's stance was counter-productive and he called on the organisation to play a more "positive role" in the country.

"At the moment some UN agencies appear to be doing damage in respect of parroting totally unfounded reports by some agencies without in any way trying to verify the facts," Mr Meles said.

Somalia has been politically fragmented since 1991 and the country's transitional government, faced with an insurgency, is dependent on international aid and Ethiopian military support.


The BBC's East Africa correspondent Karen Allen says Ethiopia's economy is buoyant and the country is still basking in the glory of celebrating its millennium this year.

Ethiopian troops in Mogadishu
The Ethiopians are not popular in Somalia

But the country is still largely in the spotlight because of its involvement in Somalia and its efforts to drive the Union of Islamic Courts from power, she says.

Speaking nearly a year after the invasion, Mr Meles denied that Ethiopia had underestimated the strength of the Islamists.

"Our initial plans were designed to curtail the influence of the jihadists there and to try to prevent them from taking the whole of Somalia under their control. We did that in a number of weeks," he said in an interview with the BBC.

He also denied accusations that his troops were involved in the indiscriminate shooting of civilians.

"There has not been any indiscriminate firing on our side because it would be completely suicidal for us to engage in such an activity.

"Our intention is to give space to recreate the Somali state - you do not create the Somali state by firing indiscriminately into civilian areas and civilian targets.

"Nevertheless it is quite true that when you fight in built-up areas there are bound to be civilian causalities and these are extremely regrettable."

Last week, Ethiopia denied claims that it had shelled the main market in the capital, Mogadishu, leading to at least 17 deaths.

'No resources'

Mr Meles admitted Ethiopia's withdrawal from Somalia was taking "a lot longer" than planned because of delays in the deployment of African Union peacekeepers.

So far just 1,600 Ugandan peacekeepers have arrived, out of a planned force of 8,000.

"I understand why the African Union does not have the resources to fulfil its promise.

"But I hope that those who have the resources will support the African Union so they can deploy the peacekeeping troops," he said.

Even with half the expected number, the force would "go a long way in making the appropriate environment for us to withdraw", Mr Meles added.

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