Baidoa is the Somali government’s sole base. Entrenched there, the internationally-recognized Somali administration has thanked Ethiopia for its support and swore never to let the Islamists capture the town.
A week of fighting has turned long-running hostilities into open war. Ethiopian forces failed to heed a deadline set by The Union of Islamic Courts to leave Somalia. In control of Mogadishu since June, the Islamists vowed to mount a “major attack” in response.
The fighting is the latest violent chapter in the story of a country without central rule for 15 years. A transitional Somali government, in place since 2004, has failed to end the chaos. The Islamists, whose power has been rising, say restoring order is their main aim.
Ethiopia, which boasts one of Africa’s biggest armed forces, fears a hardline Muslim state on its doorstep. The country, half of whose population is Christian, is the main regional ally of the United States, which accuses Somalia’s Islamists of having links to al Qaeda.
As forces line up on both sides, Addis Ababa and Washington also accuse Ethiopia’s enemy Eritrea of backing the Islamists. Eritrea denies any involvement in Somalia but reports suggest it has 2,000 soldiers there. What is more, some 8,000 foreign fighters are said to have poured into Somalia in support of the Islamist movement.
The UN has appproved plans to send peacekeepers to protect the Somali government. Peace talks could also go ahead. As for Ethiopia, it runs the risk of getting bogged down in Somalia, just like its ally the US has in Iraq.