MOGADISHU, Somalia, (AP) -Ethiopian fighter jets bombed two main airports in Somalia on Monday, including Mogadishu International Airport, in the first direct attack on the headquarters of an Islamic movement attempting to wrest power from the internationally recognized government.
Russian-made jets swept low over the capital at midmorning, dropping two bombs on Somalia’s main airport, which recently reopened after the Islamic takeover of Mogadishu. An Associated Press reporter who arrived shortly after the strike saw one wounded woman taken away. The runway and one building used by the Islamic forces were damaged.
Shortly afterward, Baledogle Airport, about 60 miles outside Mogadishu, was hit, an Islamic soldier said. There was no reliable casualty reports available for either attack.
“The Ethiopian government is bombing non-civilian targets in Somalia in order to disable and prevent the delivery of arms and supplies to the Islamic courts,” said Bereket Simon, an adviser to Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. Ethiopia and the Somali government have long accused the Islamic council of recruiting foreign fighters into its ranks.
The Somali government started sealing its borders Monday in an attempt to keep foreigners from joining the Islamists. Residents living along Somalia’s coast have seen hundreds of foreign Islamic fighters entering the country to answer calls by religious leaders to wage a holy war against largely Christian Ethiopia.
But the move is unlikely to have any major immediate effect, particularly along Somalia’s 1,860-mile coastline. The country has no coast guard or navy and piracy is rampant.
Ethiopia’s prime minister said Sunday that his country was “forced to enter a war” with Somalia’s Council of Islamic Courts. Experts fear the conflict in Somalia could engulf the already volatile Horn of Africa.
For their part, the Islamic fighters say they are prepared for war.
“We will overcome the Ethiopian troops in our land,” Abdirahman Janaqow, deputy chairman of the Islamic courts’ executive body, told reporters at the airport after the bombing. “Our forces are alert and ready defend our country.”
Somali troops, backed by Ethiopian soldiers, also captured a key border town early Monday and residents celebrated as government soldiers moved through the town and headed south in pursuit of fleeing Islamic militiamen, a Somali officer said.
Islamic fighters left the town of Belet Weyne, on the Somali-Ethiopian border, overnight after Ethiopian fighter jets bombed Islamic positions Sunday, residents said.
Col. Abdi Yusuf Ahmed, a Somali government army commander, told The Associated Press that his forces entered Belet Weyne early Monday without a shot fired. He held up his telephone and a reporter could hear street celebrations.
Heavy artillery and mortar fire continued to echo through the main government town of Baidoa on Monday, said Mohammed Sheik Ali, a resident reached by telephone. Government and Ethiopian troops were attempting to push back Islamic forces just 12 miles south of Baidoa.
Sunday marked the first time Ethiopia has acknowledged that its troops are fighting in Somalia, though witnesses had been reporting their presence for weeks. Ethiopia supports Somalia’s U.N.-backed government, which has been losing ground to the Islamists since June.
“Our defense force has been forced to enter a war to defend against the attacks from extremists and anti-Ethiopian forces and to protect the sovereignty of the land,” Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said in a television address Sunday night. “Our intention is to win this war as soon as possible.”
Ethiopia dropped bombs on several towns held by the Council of Islamic Courts and its soldiers used artillery and tanks elsewhere. No reliable casualty reports were immediately available.
The Islamic group’s strict and often severe interpretation of Islam raises memories of Afghanistan’s Taliban regime, which was ousted by a U.S.-led campaign for harboring Osama bin Laden. The U.S. government says four al-Qaida leaders, believed to be behind the 1998 bombing of the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, have become leaders in Somalia’s Islamic militia.
Major fighting broke out Tuesday night. On Sunday, Ethiopian forces fought alongside secular Somali soldiers in Dinsoor, Belet Weyne, Bandiradley and Bur Haqaba, officials said.
Ethiopia and Somalia have fought two wars over their disputed border in the past 45 years, and Islamic court leaders have repeatedly said they want to incorporate ethnic Somalis living in eastern Ethiopia, northeastern Kenya and Djibouti into a Greater Somalia.
Thousands of Somalis have fled their homes as troops loyal to the two-year-old interim administration fought Islamic fighters who had advanced on Baidoa, about 140 miles northwest of Mogadishu.
Government officials and Islamic militiamen have said hundreds of people have been killed in clashes since Tuesday, but the claims could not be independently confirmed. Aid groups put the death toll in the dozens.
Somalia has not had an effective government since warlords overthrew longtime dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991, plunging the country into chaos. The government was formed two years ago with the help of the United Nations, but has failed to assert any real control.