The conflict in Somalia is spreading, drawing in fighters and displacing increasing numbers of civilians. Violence has erupted in the previously calmer north of Somalia, with border clashes between the forces of semi-autonomous Puntland and the self-declared republic of Somaliland.
Ten people were killed when fighting erupted between Somaliland and Puntland, with Somaliland forces taking over the border town of Las Anod, claiming it lies within its colonial-era boundaries (SomaliNet, October 15). The territory is important to Somaliland, which believes its claim to independence is threatened by what it interprets as a growing movement of Somali unity.
Ethiopian troops are backing the feeble and now divided Transitional Federal Government (TFG) of Somalia against insurgents, among whom the extremist al-Shabaab militia—the youth wing of the now deposed Islamic Courts—leads the bloodiest attacks. Ethiopian troops are also caught up in battles on its own soil, with a long-running low-level insurgency in Ethiopia’s eastern ethnic Somali Ogaden region boiling over into major battles.
Well-equipped rebels from the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) recently claimed to have killed 250 Ethiopian government troops, although such high numbers are dismissed by Addis Ababa as “falsehoods” spread by foreign-based supporters (Reuters, October 23). ONLF fighters have also threatened to attack Ethiopian ally Somaliland, claiming it has handed over suspected ONLF supporters to Ethiopian forces (ONLF statement, October 14).
The violence, growing in intensity as well as spreading across the wider Somali region, is being exacerbated by the escalating insurgency in Mogadishu. The extent of direct links between the varied rebel groups fighting Ethiopia is not clear in the murky and rapidly shifting conflict. It is feared, however, that the fighting is boosting the influence of hard-line powerful militias, which use long-standing local grievances to strengthen their own radical movements.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer has said she suspects growing links between more radical fighters: the ONLF and another Somali rebel group fighting in the Ogaden, the United Western Somalia Liberation Front (UWSLF). Frazer, speaking to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs on October 2, claimed that these include suspected links to the Ogaden faction of the Somali al-Ittihad al-Islami (AIAI) organization (believed to have ties with al-Qaeda), as well as “terrorists affiliated with the al-Shabaab militia and remnants of the Somali Council of Islamic Courts (CIC).” The links identified by Frazer may be overemphasized, however, especially in terms of their long-term impact on the conflict.
Zakariya Mahamud Abdi, deputy to the chairman of the opposition umbrella group, the Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia (ARS), has said there is “solidarity” with Ogaden based rebels, but stressed that his group’s fight to drive Ethiopia out of Mogadishu would stop at Somalia’s territorial borders (September 20, author interview).
At the same time, near-daily attacks continue within central Somalia. A string of attempts have been made on the lives of the leaders, including a car-bombing targeting Somali Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi (Garowe Online, October 11). According to the United Nations, the fighting has had an increasing impact on civilians, with nearly 85,000 fleeing Mogadishu since June. The World Health Organization has repeated warnings of a risk of cholera, which caused over 1,100 deaths last July. Piracy has also increased, with reported hijackings soaring to 28 this year, compared to eight in 2006. A French naval vessel is due to protect aid shipments of food after recent attacks on a World Food Program-chartered ship. (Shabelle, October 26).
The situation is unlikely to improve soon, with Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi vowing not to withdraw troops from Mogadishu, as it would allow “already dismantled forces of terror in Somalia to regroup” (Sudan Tribune, October 24). Growing splits between rival supporters of President Abdullahi Yusuf and Prime Minister Gedi are threatening the future of the TFG—and could potentially imperil the Western backing that it now enjoys (Garowe Online, October 13). With factional infighting diverting the TFG from even trying to address the deteriorating situation across the region, few can find much optimism for the immediate future of Somalia.