28/12/06 (B375) BBC – Ethiopians take key Somali town (En anglais – info lectrice)

Ethiopian
troops supporting the Somali interim government have taken the town of Jowhar
in central Somalia, forcing back Islamist militiamen.

Troops
carried out a dawn attack on the strategic town – just north of the capital
controlled by the Islamists.

At the
weekend Ethiopia began a large-scale offensive against the Union of Islamic
Courts (UIC), which held much of central and southern Somalia.

Leaders
of the militia have admitted pulling out of many towns.

On Tuesday
Ethiopia said it had repelled the militia from the seat of Somalia’s transitional
government in Baidoa – but the UIC said the pull-out was tactical and the
group was “getting ready for a long war”.

The fighting
between the Ethiopian-backed interim government and the UIC escalated last
week.

In the
latest violence on Wednesday, government forces and Ethiopian armoured vehicles
attacked Jowhar, which lies 90km (55 miles) north of the capital Mogadishu
and was formerly controlled by the UIC.

Hundreds
of people have been fleeing the town, the Associated Press news agency reported.

“We
do not know where to escape, we are already suffering from floods, hunger
and disease,” resident Abdale Haji Ali told AP. “We are awaiting
death.”

Both sides
claim to have inflicted hundreds of casualties. The Red Cross has reported
more than 850 injured people at hospitals it supports.
International divisions

The UN’s
World Food Programme has suspended air drops into southern Somalia because
of the fighting.

The Security
Council, which has been debating the Somalia conflict, is due to resume discussions
later on Wednesday.

Splits
have emerged on the council with Qatar insisting that any statement should
call for the immediate withdrawal of all foreign forces, including Ethiopia’s,
from Somalia.

Other
council members say that this should not apply to Ethiopian troops, arguing
that they are in Somalia at the request of the interim government.

On Tuesday,
UN envoy Francois Lonseny Fall warned the Security Council that failure to
reach a political settlement could lead to a conflict that could “have
serious consequences for the entire region”.

The UIC
– who seized control of the capital six months ago – have introduced law and
order to the capital and much of southern Somalia for the first time in 16
years.
But other countries accuse the UIC of links to al-Qaeda, charges it denies.

Somalia
and Ethiopia – a mainly Christian nation – have a history of troubled relations,
and Islamists have long called for a holy war against Ethiopian troops in
Baidoa.