Ethiopian Minister Assures U.S. on Somalia

Ethiopia's foreign minister was in Washington this week to reassure U.S. officials about efforts to stabilize Somalia. Months ago, Ethiopia sent troops to Somalia to fight Islamist rebels and restore a weak government to power.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

ALEX COHEN, host:

And I'm Alex Cohen.

Coming up, an American man is convicted of murder in Nicaragua. Back home his family launches an online campaign on his behalf. His mother claims the Nicaraguan press inflamed the locals.

Ms. MAGGIE ANTHONY (Eric Volz's mother): Eric was chased by a mob that wanted to kill him. They were chanting inside: Let the gringo out so we could kill him.

CHADWICK: First in this from Somalia, it's not good. In Mogadishu yesterday, someone fired a missile into a children's hospital. U.N. official say the city is beginning to look like a ghost town. This as Somali government forces backed by Ethiopian troops are trying to clear the city of insurgents and observers say civilians are being caught in the crossfire.

COHEN: Ethiopia's foreign minister was in Washington this week. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN: Ethiopian foreign minister, Seyoum Mesfin, knows how to get the attention of the Bush administration. He told U.S. officials here that Ethiopian and the transitional government in Somalia are not the only ones facing the challenge in Mogadishu.

Mr. SEYOUM MESFIN (Foreign Minister, Ethiopia): It's a challenge to international community including to United States. Because this is a fight against global terrorism.

KELEMEN: Last December, and with the U.S. green light, Ethiopia sent troops to Somalia to help the weak transitional government defeat the so-called Islamic Courts Union, which both Washington and Addis Ababa accused of harboring terrorists. The U.S. followed up with some air strikes though Foreign Minister Mesfin denies the U.S. used Ethiopian airbases for those attacks. In an interview at the Ethiopian embassy here, Mesfin described the current fighting as limited to a couple of districts of Mogadishu.

Mr. MESFIN: The backbone of these terrorists has been totally destroyed. Now what our troops and the (unintelligible) are doing is just mop out operation in those two districts. Hopefully in the very few coming days, Mogadishu will be fully neutralized and people would be assisted to come back into their residence. This is what's going on.

KELEMEN: Reports out of the Somali capital paint a different picture. An expert on the region, Ken Menkhaus, is warning of a looming humanitarian catastrophe as civilians are hit by all sides of the conflict.

Professor KEN MENKHAUS (Political Science, Davidson College): The idea that it's a mopped up operation begs the question: Who does Ethiopia thinks it's mopping up? If they think that it's a small group of Islamists, they're mistaken.

KELEMEN: Menkhaus, who was a professor at Davidson College, describes the insurgency as a complex one involving some of the major Somali clans.

Prof. MENKHAUS: These clans feel that they are not a part of the transitional government. They reject it and they reject Ethiopian presence there. You can't mop up an entire clan.

KELEMEN: Ethiopia's Foreign Minister Mesfin says he's been trying to encourage the transitional federal government to be more inclusive and he acknowledges that Somali leaders haven't done enough on that front. U.S. assistant secretary of State for Africa, Jendayi Frazer, also says the political process is key but unlikely unless there's some security.

Ms. JENDAYI FRAZER (Assistant Secretary of State, African Affairs): It's a situation that's containable but they are committed spoilers who have to be dealt with so that those who are more moderate and are seeking dialogue will be able to come to the fore.

KELEMEN: This debate is sounding similar to that over Iraq. While U.S. and Ethiopian officials described the fighting as sporadic, Menkhaus talks about a quagmire saying as long as Ethiopian troops stay, there will be a lightning rod for the insurgency.

Prof. MENKHAUS: Those of us who worried about the possibility of both a quagmire and the possibility that this insurgency could spread beyond Somali's borders are increasingly being proven right by events.

KELEMEN: Evenly as the deadly attack on a Chinese-run oil field in the Ogaden region of Ethiopia this week was linked to the conflict in Somalia, because the Ogaden National Liberation Front is made up of ethnic Somalis, who have many grievances against the Ethiopian government, including its involvement in Somalia. Foreign Minister Mesfin played down the links and brushed off all the talk of a quagmire.

Mr. MESFIN: As far as Ethiopia is concerned. We would be very, very happy to withdraw today. If that is possible.

KELEMEN: The problem is, he says, Ethiopia doesn't want to leave behind a vacuum. There is only a small contingent of Ugandan peacekeepers in Mogadishu and other countries are not rushing in to fill the void.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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