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An uneasy relationship

Hopes are fading for a fresh chapter in the often stormy relationship between Horn of Africa rivals, Ethiopia and Somalia. Despite a visit by newly elected Somali interim President Abdiqassim Salad Hassan to the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, in November, relations have deteriorated rapidly, with reports of Ethiopia arming and hosting opposing faction leaders and back-pedalling on gestures of recognition for the new Somali government. The new interim Somali government, for its part, made an unsuccessful show of force in December to prevent weapons - which it said came from Ethiopia - from arriving in Mogadishu, accusing Ethiopia of interfering in Somalia’s internal affairs and stationing troops on Somali territory. Tensions between the two countries add another dimension to the protracted Horn of Africa conflict and drought crisis. The Ogaden war between Ethiopia and Somalia in the 1970s, the collapse of the Somali state in the 1990s, and the Ethiopian-Eritrean border conflict in 1998, have created some of the largest refugee movements in recent history prior to the Great Lakes disaster. Political developments between Ethiopia and Somalia have direct humanitarian implications for migration, displacement, economies and regional stability. The visit The November visit was the first by a Somali president - albeit still unrecognised by Ethiopia - to Addis Ababa for nearly two decades. The last visit of a Somali head of state to Ethiopia was in early 1974 when former president Muhammad Siyad Barre went to persuade Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie to attend an Organisation of African Unity (OAU) summit being held that year in the Somali capital, Mogadishu. The emperor attended, but afterwards the relationship between the two countries deteriorated to the point of war. When President Abdiqassim arrived, the Ethiopian government fell short of announcing his visit as one by a “head of state”, but the red-carpet treatment was given in most other respects, including the presidential suite at the Sheraton Hotel and a welcoming delegation of ministers at the airport. Ethiopia has not yet recognised the new government, which has otherwise received widespread international acceptance. Talks were duly held between Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and Abdiqassim. They focused on contentious issues of domestic and regional security. Later, the talks were declared “successful” and “cordial” by both sides. Somali Foreign Minister Isma’il Buba told reporters that “very clear understandings were reached on basic issues discussed”. The Ethiopian government said in a press release that “the establishment of the transitional government constitutes a major achievement in the Somali peace process”. Yet, since the talks, the Ethiopian government has rapidly back-pedalled - even on its “symbolic” gestures to the new government. In December, Ethiopian officials told IRIN that when Meles attended Abdiqassim’s inauguration in August, it was only “symbolic, to encourage the peace process”, and that there were now serious misgivings over his links with “Islamic fundamentalists”. Ethiopian troops remain on Somali territory, and the Somali leader has made no progress in negotiating with critical opposition faction leaders, who are supported by Ethiopia. “If things don’t get better soon, they are likely to get much worse,” a regional diplomat told IRIN. The two countries stand at a vital crossroads, observers agree. The recent past “The history of Somalia and Ethiopia is littered with distrust, animosity and war,” said one regional analyst. Suspicion of neighbouring expansionism and political extremism is deeply rooted in both states. However, Somalia’s disappearance into a political abyss over the last 10 years opened a new chapter. Meles Zenawi came to power with the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPDRF) in 1991, in the same year the Somali government collapsed. Initially, the events in the two countries seemed to break the mould. Meles knew Somalia very well, as he lived in Mogadishu when he was a liberation leader in the 1980s. Meles and Eritrean leader Isayas Afewerki “lived together in a villa behind Tawfiq Hotel, north Mogadishu, and were handled by the National Security Service, provided with travel documents and Somali passports, trained and given a Tigrayan radio frequency”, a former senior Somali government official told IRIN. Once in power, Meles was genuinely disturbed by Somalia’s descent into factional anarchy, and its regional consequences. Competing Somali militia leaders were, for their part, initially willing to use Meles to broker peace talks, as he had links to the old, military dictatorship, while at the same time was perceived as a successful revolutionary and a leading figure in the “new generation” of African leaders. Ethiopia got international commendation when it managed to bring the main Somali factions together for the first time in Addis Ababa in 1992 for peace talks. But the honeymoon was not to last for long. Ethiopia’s pivotal role in Somali peace talks was over by 1993, with many of the faction leaders claiming it was forcibly pursuing its own agenda. The new Ethiopian government, moreover, was increasingly influenced by events in its own Somali region - which has a large ethnic Somali population and close economic and political links with neighbouring Somalia. The activities of Somali irredentist movements in this part of Ethiopia, particularly the Western Somali Liberation Front (WSLF), which were seeking to establish a “Greater Somalia” to incorporate all territories containing Somali populations, led to the Ethiopian-Somali Ogaden war in 1977. “Some Somalis do retain a lingering desire for a greater Somalia, but it’s more an emotional dream for the indefinite future... There are few in the Ogaden who would want to join Somalia now, though they might want an independent Ogadenia,” regional expert Patrick Gilkes told IRIN. Although the threat of irredentism had generally receded by the time Meles came to power, the ethnic Somali population continued to feel alienated and marginalised from the centre of power, which has always been dominated by northern Christian Amhara and Tigrayan groups. Central governments have, for their part, viewed the migratory pastoralist Muslim Somalis as resenting government structures and having an ambiguous national identity. “Intense clan loyalties make it difficult to superimpose transcending political structures,” one observer said. The EPRDF found it difficult to establish itself in the Somali region, which remains one of the most unstable areas in the country. A strong military presence has remained in the Ethiopian Ogaden area, and has provoked accusations of repression and abuse, documented by international and local human rights organisations. In Kebri Dehar, an Ogadeni stronghold, local and international sources told IRIN in November that the bodies of suspected rebels caught and killed by government soldiers were sometimes left outside the garrison until they rotted. Relatives were too scared to collect or identify the bodies, said the sources, who included witnesses. Having introduced a form of democracy based on ethnic regionalism, the Ethiopian central government found itself struggling to establish an “obedient” Somali party. In the areas contiguous with Somalia, the Ogadeni National Liberation Front (ONLF) agitated for regional independence, while armed opposition groups included cells of the Islamic extremist movement, Al-Ittihad. Ethiopia’s population is generally believed to comprise about 50 percent Muslim and 50 percent Christian, but Ethiopian officials told IRIN the ratio was roughly 60 percent Christian to 40 percent Muslim. Creating a “buffer zone” Although the Somali population in Ethiopia is relatively small - about 3.5 million - the territory it occupies is significant in that it borders on Somalia and is used by armed opposition groups, the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and the ONLF. The Oromos, the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, are linguistically and culturally related to Somalis and comprise both Christians and Muslims. According to the Ethiopian government, many elements of the armed opposition in the Ethiopian Somali region are “Islamic fundamentalists”. The new Ethiopian government of 1991 pursued an increasingly militaristic option in the Somali region - much like previous regimes. By 1993, the Ethiopian defence minister, Siye Abraha, announced to journalists in Addis Ababa that Ethiopian troops had fought and defeated Islamic fundamentalists in the Ogaden. A heavy military presence has since remained in the Somali region, particularly in the Ogaden, and is used to control domestic insurrection, as well as launch military operations along the common border and into southern Somalia. Problems in the Ethiopian Somali region were exacerbated by the collapse of the Somali government. Hundreds of thousands of refugees and returnees crossed the common border because of the civil war in Somalia. Extremists and armed groups took advantage of the anarchy and lack of controls at the border. At the same time, Ethiopia’s relations with its western neighbour, Sudan, had begun to deteriorate, with behind-the-scenes accusations by Ethiopia that Sudan was “exporting” Islamic extremism, and providing support for armed Al-Ittihad units based in the Ogaden and southern Somalia. Ethiopian public foreign policy became increasingly defined by the threat of “Islamic fundamentalism”. Meles Zenawi said in an interview in December 2000: “What concerns us first and last is what the government [of Somalia] and the different parties and organisations do inside Ethiopia. Some of the extremist organisations did not limit their activities inside Somalia and went to destabilise Ethiopia.” In the interview, published in the Arabic London-based ‘Al-Hayat’ newspaper, Meles said of the situation in Somalia: “What worries us is the presence of well-trained terrorists, and that is enough to destabilise the security and stability of Ethiopia.” Interventionism unbound By the mid-1990s, Ethiopia, the US, and the UN had failed to facilitate effective peace talks in Somalia, and international intervention brought disastrous consequences, with the deaths of UN and US peacekeepers, as well as hundreds of Somalis. There was increasing bitterness in Somalia towards what was perceived as external opportunism and negligence. “Somalia became a free-for-all... States and organisations could interfere in any way they liked,” said one Somali political source. It seemed that the distrustful relationship between Somalia and Ethiopia had changed very little. While in the past, Ethiopian governments had felt threatened by a strong, united Somalia, the absence of any state at all was just as bad. In the name of national defence, Ethiopia went ahead and pursued a policy of backing and creating “friendly forces” in Somalia. Ethiopia in Somalia: By the time a new government was elected during the Djibouti-hosted peace talks in August 2000, Ethiopia was firmly committed to certain Somali leaders and territories. “Ethiopia would deny it but would much prefer to see a Somalia composed of several ‘building blocks’ - a loose grouping of Mijerteen (Puntland), Rahanweyn, Hawiye and trans-Juba states, kept relatively weak, with Somaliland as a separate state,” one Somalia expert told IRIN. With a constitution which “encourages ethnic regionalism, but expects political obedience”, the Ethiopian government found no difficulty in relating to and manipulating these semi-independent regional blocs, one regional diplomat asserted. Critical to Ethiopian interests was the self-declared state of Somaliland in northwestern Somalia. Ethiopia became landlocked when the former Ethiopian coastal province of Eritrea became independent in 1993. Agreed access by Ethiopia to Eritrean ports collapsed in 1997, after which war broke out between Ethiopia and Eritrea in 1998, and Ethiopia turned to Djibouti. Ethiopia-Djibouti port arrangements and infrastructure meant the Djibouti port took the lion’s share of Ethiopian traffic, but ultimately proved unsatisfactory to Ethiopia. A Djibouti journalist told IRIN that there had been frequent complaints from port handlers and middlemen over “demanding” and “difficult” Ethiopian traders and truck drivers. More pertinent was the decision by President Ismael Guelleh, elected in 1998, to contract a Saudi Arabian company to take over the poorly run port by August 2000. Guelleh made a clear foreign policy move by turning more decisively to the Arab states for support and financial assistance, which held little appeal for the Ethiopian government. By December 2000, the Djibouti Port Authority had released plans to raise port tariffs by up to 150 percent from 15 January, which was met with anger in Ethiopian government and business circles. Official figures quoted by Reuters news agency said the volume of traffic at Djibouti port had nearly tripled to four million tonnes since Ethiopia began relying on the port - including the huge volumes of relief food which passed through the port because of a drought-related food crisis in Ethiopia. Uneasy with its dependence on Djibouti, Ethiopia from 1999 placed increasing importance on securing access to the port of Berbera, Somaliland. The president of Somaliland, Muhammad Ibrahim Egal - ­former Somali prime minister and an elder statesman - has made a number of visits to Ethiopia since he was elected at Borama in 1993. Somaliland has never received official recognition as an independent state by Ethiopia, but Egal is afforded sufficient status and facilitation to satisfy the political relationship. Diplomatic sources say Ethiopia also supplied ammunition to Egal. Economic and trade agreements have been signed with Ethiopia, with Egal eager to encourage Ethiopia’s appetite for securing “friendly” ports and developing trade routes. In an interview with ‘Al-Hayat’ in December 2000, Meles Zenawi said “We do not recognise Somaliland as an independent state... We have a de facto relationship with all [independent states]... It is on our border. Do we pretend that it does not exist?” Ethiopia’s relationship with Somaliland is deeply rooted. [The previous government provided external bases to the Somali National Movement (SNM), which fought in the 1980s for the liberation - and ultimately independence - of northwestern Somalia. Many Somalilanders and SNM fighters have lived for long periods in Ethiopia.] With the present Ethiopian search for “friendly ports” frustrated by the Eritrean border conflict, high tariffs in Djibouti, and extreme distances involved in neighbouring Kenya and Sudan, Somaliland’s importance to Ethiopia is disproportionate to the present capacity of the port of Berbera. But the Ethiopian government counts opposition by the self-declared state to the new interim government as a primary reason for withholding official recognition of Abdiqassim. The Ethiopian government has also consistently supported the leader of the Puntland administration, Colonel Abdullahi Yusuf. Ethiopian officials told IRIN that Abdullahi Yusuf was “of a different calibre” from other faction leaders - one who could be trusted to deliver on promises. Abdullahi Yusuf served in the Somali army before he was involved in a military coup in 1978, led by Mijerteen officers. He fled to Ethiopia, where he formed the opposition group which became the Somali Salvation Democratic Front (SSDF). The colonel was detained by former Ethiopian dictator Mengistu Hailemariam, reportedly because he was using Libyan money to buy the services of senior Ethiopian officers to help assassinate his opponents within the SSDF. He served seven years until released as a result of the EPRDF takeover in 1991. In 1998, he took the initiative, as leader of SSDF, to declare Puntland an autonomous region. The relationship between the Ethiopian government and Abdullahi Yusuf is widely known, though both sides continue to go through rituals of secrecy. When the Djibouti-hosted peace talks attempted to get the Puntland leader on board, the regional Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) looked to Ethiopia to effect persuasion. A senior military officer flew to Bosaaso, and Abdullahi Yusuf paid a number of visits to Addis Ababa. The failure of Ethiopia to bring Abdullahi Yusuf to the talks was seen as much as Ethiopian ambiguity towards the Djibouti-led peace process, as the intransigence of the Puntland leader. Abdullahi Yusuf has made frequent trips abroad for medical treatment, including for liver problems, over the last two years, mainly to Kenya and Britain. Southern Somalia - crossing the line: Compared to the disastrous infighting in the south, Somaliland and Puntland achieved relative success in establishing stability and functioning administrations. However, Ethiopia did not limit its interests to “existing building blocks”, point out regional analysts: it was also eager to create one in southern Somalia. Southern Somalia - Bay, Bakool and Gedo regions - was the real Achilles heel as far as Ethiopia was concerned. There, fighting and insecurity continued in the absence of any real leadership, and because of the lack of a secure administration. There was also widespread recognition, both inside and outside Somalia, that Al-Ittihad was operating in these areas. By 1993, Ethiopia had persuaded the US to help in efforts to police the Ogaden and border against Islamic extremist groups. The Ethiopian Ministry of Defence confirmed to journalists in 1993 that the US government had given “non-lethal aid”, including trucks, to help create a “buffer zone” against the threat of Islamic “fundamentalists”. “I think the US is now basically embarrassed about its policy in Ethiopia,” said one diplomat who deals with Somalia. Eager to establish a foothold in a region it had been locked out of during the Cold War, the US gave “seemingly unconditional blessing” to Meles Zenawi’s regime, said the source. Ethiopian foreign policy rhetoric about “Islamic fundamentalists” sat comfortably with the US, which similarly defined its policy in the region. When Ethiopia attacked communities it accused of harbouring “fundamentalists” inside southern Somalia with helicopter gunships and ground troops in 1998, there was no protest made on behalf of the stateless country. This US “special relationship” with Ethiopia took a blow in the later stages of the Ethiopian-Eritrean border conflict of 1998-2000, with the US withholding aid after Ethiopia went ahead and launched an attack on Eritrea despite intense US-led shuttle diplomacy efforts to avert the fighting. By December, however, the US proposed that the UN Security Council lift an arms embargo imposed on Ethiopia and Eritrea, due to lapse in May, on the grounds that they had signed a comprehensive peace agreement on 12 December in Algiers. Arms from Ethiopia also go to faction leaders in southern Somalia, agree diplomats, humanitarian sources, Somali political sources, and residents of Gode in the Ethiopian Somali region. Muhammad Siyad Hirsi Morgan, onetime bodyguard and a son-in-law of former dictator Muhammad Siyad Barre, leads a small group of militia in Waajid, a Rahanweyn Resistance Army (RRA) controlled territory in Bakool Region, and receives support from Ethiopia. Since September, Morgan has been seen receiving weapons on two separate visits to Gode, while accommodated by Ethiopian military and government officials, say local residents and regional diplomats. Morgan, a former sub-lieutenant in the army, rose rapidly through the ranks to head the Ministry of Defence in the last days of Siyad Barre’s rule. As a Mijerteen, he has unsuccessfully laid claim to the southern port of Kismaayo. The other main recipient of Ethiopian support is Mogadishu-based faction leader Muse Sude Yalahow, who represented a challenge to the younger Aydid in areas of south Mogadishu from 1997. Yalahow was formerly a driver for the Somali ambassador to Iraq, and supported faction leader Ali Mahdi Muhammad in northern Mogadishu when the civil war broke out. Now considered one of the most effective obstacles to the new government in Mogadishu, he draws support from the Abgal, one of the largest Hawiye sub-clans, and controls the Medina area of southern Mogadishu. Among the various Mogadishu faction leaders, Yalahow’s area of control “had a semblance of order, established an Islamic court, instituted a system of taxation, and maintained decent security”, Somali political sources told IRIN. Ethiopia initially showed interest in him because of his opposition to Husayn Aydid, but has recently been blatant in its use of the faction leader against the new interim government. Local and international media reports documented the arrival of weapons trucked into Mogadishu from Ethiopia for Yalahow in mid-December. Ethiopia took advantage of unsanctioned freedom to support “friendly forces” in a stateless country, pointed out one regional diplomat. Its relationship with the RRA became “an open secret”, with senior Ethiopian military officers moving visibly in southern Somalia, and weapons moving from the Ethiopian border into Somalia. By 2000, there were numerous reports of faction leaders visiting the Ethiopian Somali region - particularly Gode, the capital of the Ogaden area - to receive weapons and meet Ethiopian military and government representatives. Part II The proxy war Ethiopian policy in southern Somalia was also influenced by Mogadishu faction leaders, particularly Husayn Muhammad Aydid in south Mogadishu. Although the Ethiopian government enjoyed a period of good relations with his father, General Muhammad Farah Aydid, there was a significant rift by the time the general died, in 1996. While Meles recognised Aydid as a strong military man and a tough negotiator, his young US-marine trained son was considered a dangerous light-weight, who had inherited his father’s mantle through his clan only by force of circumstance, rather than by traditional legitimacy or qualification. Husayn Aydid turned to Libya and Egypt for support, and openly allowed Ethiopian opposition leaders from the armed OLF to live in Mogadishu. Former Oromo refugee camps in Qoryooley, southern Somalia, were turned into training camps for the OLF, international and local news agencies reported. By the late 1990s, the Ethiopian-backed RRA had become not just a force to deal with “Islamic extremists” in Gedo Region but also as a buffer force to contain Husayn Aydid and deal with factions and militia allied to him. As well as facilitating Ethiopian opposition, Aydid for his part provided Al-Ittihad with arms in an attempt to limit Ethiopian policy in southern Somalia, a western intelligence source told IRIN. In 1998, a full-scale border war flared up between Ethiopia and Eritrea. The flow of arms to competing factions in Somalia significantly increased as the two countries became embroiled in proxy war. In May 1999 a large consignment of heavy arms was reported in the international and local Somali press as arriving in Marka, southern Somalia. The shipment, reported to have originated in Eritrea, was destined for Husayn Aydid. Local reports said Eritrean officials, soldiers and members of the OLF arrived with the arms shipment. Somalia was “rapidly becoming a new theatre in the Ethiopia-Eritrea border conflict,” one regional analyst told IRIN at the time. In April 1999, Husayn Aydid sent a joint letter with other Ethiopia-opposed faction leaders to the UN Security Council, protesting against Ethiopian incursions into the Somalia border region. He told IRIN, in an interview in Mogadishu at the time, that Ethiopian troops had invaded Bulo Hauwen and Dolo on the common border. He also claimed that Ethiopia had established military training facilities in Bulo Hauwen. Aydid denied supporting and arming Oromo fighters, but admitted that he provided “a safe haven” for political refugees from Ethiopia - of which “only about 700 are organised”. Ethiopia was hiring local Somalis and Ethiopians to capture and assassinate Oromos living in Somalia, accused Aydid. In the same interview, Aydid said his relationship with Eritrea was “good” and admitted to receiving uniforms from the Eritrean government. Ethiopia was accused of “occupying” the south-central Somali town of Baidoa in June 1999, and denied it strenuously. But well-placed security and political sources told IRIN at the time that Ethiopia was concentrating its forces in Baidoa, while the RRA went in pursuit of the remnants of Husayn Aydid’s rapidly weakening militia force and the OLF. An intelligence source told IRIN at the time that Ethiopian troops were present in Baidoa, and had moved troops into Gedo Region through the border town of Dolo. Ethiopia had also established a presence at Ceel Berde near Beled Weyne, said the source. It completed the creation by Addis Ababa of a “buffer zone” between Luuq and Beled Weyne, and extended it to Baidoa said the source. “The exercise represents a double success for Ethiopia, in blocking Eritrean efforts to open a second front and sending a clear message to Islamic fundamentalists in southern Somalia to be very careful about incursions into Ethiopia,” the source added. Ethiopia has always strongly denied invading Somalia or creating “friendly forces”. When giving an interview to ‘Al-Hayat’ in December 2000, Meles Zenawi said Ethiopia had put a lot of effort into Somali peace processes, including the recent one hosted by Djibouti. “We have put a lot of effort with all the other Somali groups in the border regions to participate... Some of these groups participated and others refused, and it is not possible for us or others to impose on them by force,” he said. What next? Ethiopian officials told IRIN that the reluctance to extend official recognition to Abdiqassim’s government was concern over extremism. “There is serious concern that this transitional government is supported by and involved with Islamic fundamentalists,” said one highly placed Ethiopian official. “We are also concerned about the lack of engagement with the established administrations, like Somaliland and Puntland, and about the lack of engagement with other faction leaders.” He said Ethiopia had not yet officially recognised the interim government - “that will depend on how the transitional government addresses these concerns”. Meles Zenawi said in the interview with ‘Al-Hayat’ in December that Ethiopia had supported all the resolutions regarding the new interim government taken by IGAD. He said he wished to stress “that we had role in reaching an agreement that allowed the president of the current government in Mogadishu to take up the Somali seat on condition that he must have some specific qualifications”. He said the qualifications would be determined by “whether this government will use the cover of international legitimacy to take the rest of the country by force or whether it will resolve the problem by peaceful means”. He also said he had discussed the issue of Islamic fundamentalism with Abdiqassim “and he assured us that he is not one of them and that he will fight any organisation that destabilises the regions. We have no problem if he keeps his promise in these regards”. After pronouncing its war strategy against Eritrea “successful” in May 2000, the Ethiopian government has portrayed itself as a “regional superpower” with a “responsibility” to keep regional peace. It was during the border war that the Ethiopian army was increased to its present size of about 400,000, international diplomats in Addis Ababa told IRIN - the same size as under former communist-style dictator Mengistu Hailemariam. Massive rearmament was carried out in the build-up and onset of the war, until the UN Security Council slapped an arms ban on the two countries. Security sources in Addis Ababa said the Ethiopian army consists mainly of infantry, who were motivated by the national crisis during the border war. In one of the poorest countries in the world, joining the army on a small but regular salary is attractive. However, the militarisation of Ethiopia brought its own dilemmas, one diplomat told IRIN. Regional training camps taught thousands of young men how to handle weapons, and stirred up strong political sentiments. Then, after a relatively short time on active service, the soldiers returned to their homes. “Many were seduced by the tales of a ‘high-tech’ war - they thought they would be pushing buttons but found themselves as cannon fodder on the front lines,” said the source. Political sources in Ethiopia told IRIN that the government was “almost Marxist” in its approach to the war with Eritrea, with the “massive concentration on morale-boosting political messages and propaganda”. Many soldiers have been transferred south since the cessation of hostilities with Eritrea in June, charge opposition groups. The OLF and the ONLF have both issued statements accusing the government of increasing its military presence in eastern Ethiopia, the Ethiopian Somali region and along the Ethiopian-Somali border. Diplomats and humanitarian sources in Ethiopia confirm a recent new concentration of troops along the common border. Having built an extremely militarised regime, where aggressive nationalism temporarily mollified some of the fiercest domestic opponents, the dilemma of the Ethiopian government is to maintain its internal image as a regional superpower, said one diplomat. Making choices Abdiqassim faced criticism during his election and after his inauguration that he was linked to Islamic fundamentalists - not only from Ethiopia, but also from a nervous international community, which had disengaged itself from Somalia for almost a decade. In an interview with IRIN, he said “Islamic fundamentalism” was a reference to extremism, and he had nothing to do with extremists. “I am a Muslim by faith; I have respect for other faiths... As for fundamentalism, I never support extremists. That is what fundamentalism means. I am against extremism, whether it is religious or ideological,” he told IRIN. But Ethiopian officials point to the fact the Islamic courts, as a security force, support the government, and members of the courts are included in the transitional national parliament. The head of the Islamic courts - which is one of the most powerful and efficient militia forces in Mogadishu - is headed by Shaykh Hasan Diriye Aweys, who was the military commander of Al-Ittihad in the southern Gedo Region from 1993 to 1994. But supporters of the new government say accusations of fundamentalism are being deliberately exaggerated, or are based on misunderstanding of the composition and role of the Islamic courts. “The connotation is one of extremism, but the Islamic courts are overwhelmingly dominated by traditionalist mainstream groups, which are much less conservative than “fundamentalists,” said one Somali political source. Shaykh Hasan heads the courts, a clan-based organisation, but he is controlled by a council of elders, who provide him with money and militia, said the source. “Fundamentalism along the lines of Algeria cannot take hold in Somalia, where religion is basically not really adhered to in a predominantly nomadic culture,” said the source. However, there is agreement between supporters and critics of the new government that Somalia’s situation creates extreme vulnerability. Ethiopia is not the only neighbouring country that has expressed concern about extremist groups using Somalia. In an interview with IRIN in April 1999, Kenyan Foreign Minister Bonaya Godana said there were fears that terrorists had used Somalia territory in planning the bombing of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in August 1998. A US intelligence source told IRIN that a communications system had been established by a cell of Islamic extremists linked to international Saudi-born terrorist Usamah bin Ladin, in the southern coastal town of Ras Komboni. There were reports in the international press - never confirmed - that Bin Ladin had visited southern Somalia prior to the embassy bombings. “A drowning man will grab a straw - if there is no alternative, you take what is provided by whoever provides it,” one Mogadishu resident told IRIN. Money from Arab states and fundamentalist organisations provides resources, including to schools and institutions, in the absence of any other assistance, Somali political sources said. But if Ethiopia further isolates the new interim government and arms its opponents, the likelihood of Abdiqassim turning to Arab states and Islamic resources only increases, point out regional experts and diplomats.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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