Ethiopian, Somali troops regain Jowhar - gateway to Mogadishu
December 27, 2006

Somali government soldiers in Burhakaba on Tuesday, Dec. 26, 2006
Transitional Federal Government with an anti aircraft gun on a truck after arriving in Jowhar town 90 kilometers (56 miles) from Baidoa in Somalia, Wednesday, Dec 27, 2006. (AFP photo)
Ethiomedia Update - MOGADISHU - Jowhar and Balad towns are now in the hands of Ethiopian-backed Somali government troops. Now all eyes are on Mogadishu, which lies only 19 miles (30 km) to the north. The unstoppable advance of the government troops have forced the once-powerful Islamist leaders - including Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys - to submit resignation letters. A wise decision. The ICU leaders have also ordered their fighters to hand over weapons to clan leaders. Quickly, military fatigues are disappearing into civilian clothes amid the pop-ups of pictures of President Abdulahi Yusuf and Prime Minister Gedi.

There is also a sense of relief with residents that businesses banned during the ICU rule are bouncing back to life: cinemas are opening and the semi-narcotic khat is being sold openly. While Mogadishu is tittering on the brink of anarchy, Ethiopian troops are, according to SOMALINET , advancing toward Kisimayo, the port which has reportedly been used as entry point for foreign fighters.

Earlier, Western intelligence officials said Eritrean soldiers were 'furiously distributing anti-aircraft missiles to the Islamist fighters' and residents confirmed that the militias were test-firing them. In the diplomatic front, a UN Security Council meeting on Tuesday failed to agree on a Qatari proposal that called for the withdrawal of Ethiopian troops from Somalia. In Addis, the African Union has called a meeting with the Arab League and regional body IGAD on how the warring parties would resume dialogue.

Jowhar Captured
By Mohamed Olad Hassan, Associated Press Writer

MOGADISHU, Somalia - Attacking at dawn, Ethiopian and Somali government troops on Wednesday drove Islamic fighters out of the last major town on the road to the Islamist-held capital.

Former warlord Mohammed Dheere, 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, said resident Abshir Ali Gabre.

"We will attack Mogadishu tomorrow, from two directions," Dheere told the crowd, although his statement appeared to overstep his authority. Dheere does not speak for the government or the......Ethiopians.

Government spokesman Abdirahman Dinari confirmed the capture of Jowhar and said his troops were heading toward Balad, an agricultural village about 18 miles from Mogadishu. Smaller than Jowhar, it is the last town before the capital.

A resident there, Mohammed Abdi Hassan, told The Associated Press by telephone that the Islamists have left the city and that no one was in control.

Fighting could still be heard at a military camp south of Jowhar, and an Islamic official said his troops were simply entering a new phase in their battle.

"Our snakes of defense were let loose, now they are ready to bite the enemy everywhere inSomalia," said Sheik Mohamoud Ibrahim Suley. He did not elaborate, but some Islamic leaders have threatened a guerrilla war including suicide bombings in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital.

Hundreds of people had fled Jowhar, anticipating major fighting, but others seemed resigned to it after suffering from drought and flooding over the last two years.

"We do not know where to escape, we are already suffering from floods, hunger and disease," Abdale Haji Ali said from Jowhar. "We are awaiting death."

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.

A State Department spokesman in Washington signaled support Tuesday for Ethiopian military operations against Somalia, noting that Ethiopia has had "genuine security concerns" stemming from the rise of Islamist forces in its eastern neighbor.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said Tuesday that Ethiopian forces may soon wrap up their offensive against the Islamic militias that until recent days controlled most of southern part of the country.

Meanwhile, the chairman of the African Union Commission has called a meeting Wednesday in AddisAbaba, Ethiopia, of the 53-nation AU, the Arab League, and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, a seven-nation East African group, to try to end the fighting and resume dialogue between Somalia's warring parties.

The U.N. Security Council on Tuesday 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.

Somalia has not had an effective government since warlords overthrew longtime dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991, pushing the country into anarchy.

Two years ago, the United Nations helped set up a central government for the arid, impoverished Horn of Africa nation. But until the past week, it had little influence outside of its seat in the city of Baidoa, about 140 northwest of Mogadishu.

The country was largely under the control of warlords until this past summer, when the Islamic militia movement pushed them aside.

One critical issue is whether the central government can win the support of Somalis. Many resent Ethiopia's intervention because the countries have fought two wars over their disputed border in the past 45 years.

Experts fear the conflict in Somalia could engulf the region. Islamic courts leaders have repeatedly said they want to incorporate ethnic Somalis living in eastern Ethiopia, northeastern Kenya and Djibouti into a Greater Somalia.

Ethiopia's Meles said his goal is not to defeat the militias but severely damage their military power and allow both sides to return to peace talks on an even footing.

"The rank and file of the Islamic Courts militia is not a threat to Ethiopia," he said Tuesday. "Once they return to their bases, we willleave them alone."

Ethiopian troops will not enter Mogadishu, he said. Instead, he said, Somali forces would encircle the city to contain the militias that control it.

Any effort by the Somali government or Ethiopia to take the capital risks a disaster similar to the U.S. intervention in Somalia in 1992.

That U.N.-sponsored mission ended in 1993, after Somali militiamen shot down a U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopter. Eighteen American servicemen were killed in the crash and vicious street fighting that preceded and followed, made famous in the book and movie "Black Hawk Down."

Associated Press writers Salad Duhul, Les Neuhausin Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and Chris Tomlinson in Nairobi, Kenya, contributed to this report.

Copyright 2006 by the Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.