Ethiopian Emissary on Somali Violence

Melissa Block talks with Dr. Samuel Assefa, Ethiopia's ambassador to the United States, about his country's role in Somalia, where a conflict has escalated over the past week. Ethiopian forces are said to be backing the Somali government forces that have entered the capital of Mogadishu.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Samuel Assefa is Ethiopia's ambassador to the United States. He joins us from the Ethiopian Embassy here in Washington, D.C. Thanks for being with us.

Mr. SAMUEL ASSEFA (Ambassador to the United States, Ethiopia): Thank you very much, Melissa.

BLOCK: I'd like to ask you for your ideas on what your country's role now is, specifically in controlling the capital of Somalia, Mogadishu?

Mr. ASSEFA: If you ask specifically, we have no specific role in controlling the capital. This is the job of the transitional federal government of Somalia. The fate of Mogadishu fundamentally should be left to the government. It's their country. It's not really our place to dictate.

Having said this, we have been in ongoing consultations, discussions, with our friends in the transitional federal government about what to do with the complete collapse, the disintegration of the structure of power that provided a semblance of order for the city, and I think there is shared understanding about at least the basics that have to be attended to.

BLOCK: And what would your government do about that?

Mr. ASSEFA: Our advice to the transitional federal government is first of all to engage politically. This is dialogue with elders, dialogue with the business community, dialogue with influential members of the community as a whole has to proceed or has to go in tandem with any military activity.

Secondly, and here the transitional government, too, has been already very active on this front. It is maintaining strict discipline. Having the right ethos, as it were. Making sure that revenges along lines of clan and so on are averted is also a very, very important component of restoring some kind of normalcy in the city.

But things seem to be a little better. That's what some reports tend to suggest over the past few hours. The past six, seven hours or so we hear there are fewer brandishing of arms. The lootings and so on seem to have subsided. Some shops are beginning to open. Even one movie theater of sorts, a makeshift movie theater seems to have opened. And there are some signs of, well, a return to normalcy, and I think this is in part due to political work.

BLOCK: The report that we have heard from a reporter in Mogadishu is actually quite different. It describes a great deal of chaos. Apparently the Islamists, in leaving the city, turned their weapons over to various warlords and that seems like a recipe for disaster.

Mr. ASSEFA: That is true. That is true. They claimed that they had actually turned over their weapons to responsible elders, but what had happened is they turned it over to very young men with sort of militant beliefs and passions and this is a problem and this is something that needs to be watched.

So I'm not in any way suggesting that the problem has been effectively eliminated. The suggestion is basically that the political dialogues, which have commenced with elders, with the business community, these are very, very influential groups in the society. They do quite a bit of work in this regard, and perhaps there are already signs that this may already have positive effects.

BLOCK: When do you see Ethiopian troops withdrawing from Somalia?

Mr. ASSEFA: A few days, at most perhaps a week or two weeks. That's the language that has been employed by the prime minister as well, and I will not depart from this. It is speedy withdrawal.

BLOCK: Well, what then would keep the Islamists from coming back? They have pledged to carry on the fight and it's not clear that the transitional government has at all the strength to take them on. They were only able to do what they did with the overwhelming power from your country, from Ethiopia.

Mr. ASSEFA: Well, I mean, you yourself are giving us all the indications that they have dispersed.

BLOCK: Dispersed, but not disappeared.

Mr. ASSEFA: Well, I think they have disbanded for the most part. Now those elements, the hardcore elements, the fanatical elements, are a source of worry. That is why we claim that our job is not yet fully complete militarily. Seventy-five percent was the figure that was used today. We have 25 percent of the job still ahead of us and it refers indeed to these elements that may still pose a threat.

But by and large, I think the whole idea that they will quickly regroup and have kept themselves intact and it's just a matter of redrawing tactics, it's not consistent with everything else that we are saying.

BLOCK: Ambassador Samuel, thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. ASSEFA: Thank you so much.

BLOCK: Samuel Assefa is the Ethiopian ambassador to the United States. He spoke with us from the embassy here in Washington, D.C.

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