Ethiopian jets strike Somali airports
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Ethiopian jets strike Somali airports

Ethiopian warplanes attacked two Islamist-held airfields in Somalia, further escalating a conflict that threatens to engulf the Horn of Africa in war.

india Updated: Dec 25, 2006 17:12 IST

Ethiopian warplanes attacked two Islamist-held airfields in Somalia on Monday, witnesses said, wounding at least one person and further escalating a conflict that threatens to engulf the Horn of Africa in war.

The attacks came the morning after Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi formally declared war on the Islamists, saying he was protecting his nation's sovereignty against a movement Addis Ababa accuses of being run by terrorists.

An MiG fighter struck the capital Moghadishu's international airport with machine-gun fire, injuring a cleaning lady, the airport's managing director, Abdirahim Adan, told the agency. He said reports a bomb had fallen were wrong.

Three MiGs later attacked Somalia's biggest military airfield Baledogle, about 100 km west of Mogadishu.

"They are targeting the runway and I can see it being hit," said an Islamist fighter who asked not to be named.

A week of fighting between Islamists and Somalia's Ethiopian-backed government has intensified long-running hostilities.

Addis Ababa and the United States say the Islamists, who control most of southern Somalia after seizing Mogadishu in June, is a terrorist group backed by Ethiopia's enemy, Eritrea

Ethiopia has vowed to protect the Western-backed interim government, which is virtually encircled by Islamist fighters in its south-central provincial base Baidoa.

Fighting continued for the seventh day on Monday near Daynunay, outside Baidoa, between fighters loyal to the Somalia Islamic Courts Council (SICC) and government troops backed by Ethiopian tanks, artillery and air strikes.

In Baidoa, the virtually powerless interim government said it was closing all of Somalia's land, sea and air borders.

Government spokesman Abdirahman Dinari said the administration approved of Ethiopia's attack on the airport.

"Anywhere terrorists use to bring in arms and ammunition deserves to be hit," he said.

The interim government's prime minister, Ali Mohamed Gedi, told the agency that 8,000 foreign fighters had poured into Somalia to back the Islamists.

He concurred with a recent US accusation the Islamists' top echelon was being controlled by Al-Qaeda.

"The airport is used mainly by civilian flights," said Abdi Kafi, a senior SICC official. "This latest attack has come at time when so many people are traveling to attend haj. It is a shocking attack."

There was no immediate word from Addis Ababa.

Residents of Baladwayne town, north of Baidoa, said Ethiopian troops had taken control on Monday after aerial bombing raids on Sunday to drive out the Islamists.

"We heard gunfire on the north side of town," one local, Abdi Nur, said by telephone. "Then they got closer. I saw Ethiopian tanks going down the road."

Local businessman Hassan Ahmed said the shooting had stopped around Baladwayne early on Monday and that the Islamists appeared to be regrouping in hills to the east, he said.

Both sides say they have killed hundreds of opponents, although there has been no independent verification.

Somalia's ambassador to Ethiopia said government forces had killed 500 Islamist troops, most of them Eritreans.

The Islamists claim broad popular support and say their main aim is to restore order to Somalia after years of anarchy.

Addis Ababa, which has intervened in the past to attack Islamic radicals in Somalia, fears a hardline Muslim state on its doorstep and specifically accuses the SICC of wanting to annex Ethiopia's ethnically Somali Ogaden region.

UN experts said recently 10 different countries were illegally arming both sides.

First Published: Dec 25, 2006 17:10 IST