Somali Forces Set To Battle For Capital

Transitional Federal Government soldiers patrol in the streets of Burhakaba in Somalia, Tuesday, Dec 26, 2006. AP Photo

Somalia government soldiers, joined by troops from neighboring Ethiopia, advanced toward Somalia's capital Wednesday as Islamic fighters dug in and promised a "new phase" in the war — a chilling pronouncement from a movement that has threatened suicide attacks.

Somalia called on the Council of Islamic Courts militias, bloodied by a week of artillery and mortar attacks, to surrender and promised amnesty if they lay down their weapons, government spokesman Abdirahman Dinari said.

Ethiopian and Somali troops entered the strategic city of Jowhar, the last major town on the northern road to the capital, routing Islamic militiamen and forcing them to retreat, residents said.

A former warlord, who ruled Jowhar before it was captured by the Council of Islamic Courts in June, led the Somali government troops as they drove into the city, resident said. "Ethiopian troops and Mohammed Dhere have entered the city," said Abshir Ali Gabre.

Meanwhile, Francois Lonseny Fall, the top U.N. envoy to Somalia, said 35,000 Somalis had crossed into neighboring Kenya to escape the fighting, which forced the U.N. to suspend aid delivery to two million Somalis.

As many as 1,000 people may have been killed and 3,000 wounded in the fighting, many of them foreign radicals, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said.

Meles said about 3,000 to 4,000 Ethiopian forces, which entered Somalia on Saturday, may soon wrap up their offensive against the Islamic militias that until recent days controlled most of southern part of the country.

"As soon as we have accomplished our mission — and about half of our mission is done, and the rest shouldn't take long — we'll be out," Meles told reporters in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.

The U.N. envoy, Fall, called the fighting "disastrous" for the Somalian people and asked the Security Council to call for an immediate cease-fire.

The council took no immediate action on a draft presidential statement circulated by Qatar calling for a cease-fire and withdrawal of foreign forces, specifying Ethiopian troops. The United States and several other nations objected to singling out Ethiopia and the call for a truce, saying talks and a political agreement are needed for stability before foreign forces can leave. The council agreed to continue discussions Wednesday.

A U.S. State Department spokesman in Washington appeared to endorse Ethiopia's military action, saying it had "genuine security concerns" about the growth of powerful Islamic militias next door.

The spokesman, Gonzalo Gallegos, said he had no information on whether the U.S., which is concerned about the militia's ties to foreign Islamic militants, was aiding the Ethiopian military with supplies.

Ethiopia sent fighter jets streaking deep into militia-held areas Sunday to help Somalia's U.N.-recognized government push back the Islamic militias. Ethiopia bombed the country's two main airports and helped government forces capture several villages.

Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, a top leader of the Islamic group, accused Ethiopian troops of massacring 50 civilians in the central town of Cadado. Ethiopian officials were not immediately available to respond.

Ahmed said his fighters are in tactical retreat in the face of superior Ethiopian firepower. But the military struggle has just begun, he added.

"The war is entering a new phase," Ahmed said from Mogadishu, the capital. "We will fight Ethiopia for a long, long time and we expect the war to go everyplace."
  • Stephen Smith

    Stephen Smith is a senior editor for CBSNews.com

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