Somalia: Ethiopia to stay till Islamist rebel defeated

Published on Wednesday 21st May 2008

Addis Ababa: Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said on Wednesday he would keep troops inside neighbouring Somalia until "jihadists" were defeated.


In a move supported by the United States but providing a target for militants, Meles sent thousands of troops into Somalia in late 2006 to help the nation's struggling government topple an Islamist movement that had captured most of the south.

Since then, allied Ethiopian-Somali troops have faced near-daily attacks in an insurgency drawing comparisons with Iraq and undermining stability across east Africa.

"When we exit from Somalia, it will be at the time when we are convinced that there is no imminent danger to our country," Meles told parliament. Ethiopians are anxious about the financial and human cost of their intervention.

Both Ethiopia, which is the Horn of Africa's main military power and sub-Saharan Africa's second most populous nation, and Washington say Somali insurgents have links to al Qaeda.

"Ethiopian forces did not enter Somalia to control the country, but to make sure that extremist forces will not be in power in that country," Meles added.

"The Islamic Courts Union in Somalia declared jihad against Ethiopia twice along with all sorts of anti-peace forces ... It was our responsibility to resolve the huge wave of jihadists."

Meles, and U.S. officials, say foreign militants have poured into Somalia to join the conflict. The Ethiopian leader has in the past said Ethiopia has about 4,000 troops in Somalia, but locals say the real number is far higher.

During a question-and-answer session in the Ethiopian legislature, Meles made no reference to an explosion that killed five people late on Tuesday in Addis Ababa.

Authorities said the blast on a minibus, the latest in a string of such explosions in the Ethiopia capital, was caused by "terrorists" but did not elaborate, Reuters report said.

In the past, it has blamed neighbour and foe Eritrea for fomenting trouble inside Ethiopia, an accusation Asmara derides as a smokescreen to distract attention from internal problems.

Meles said Ethiopia's troop presence in Somalia was enabling the government to negotiate with clan leaders and hopefully bring reconciliation to a nation mired in conflict since the 1992 toppling of a military dictator.

Turning to domestic affairs, he said Ethiopian rebel group the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), which operates in a region on the border with Somalia, had been largely "neutralised" by a military offensive going on for a year.

"There is no organised ONLF operation in the Somali region. It has been neutralised," he said. "There may be a few individuals and we are picking them one-by-one."

The ONLF denies that, saying despite a campaign of terror in the region, the army has not defeated it.