July 26, 2006

Mystery plane fuels Somalia war fears

By Mohamed Ali Bile and Guled Mohamed

MOGADISHU (Reuters) - A mystery cargo plane landed in
Somalia's capital Mogadishu on Wednesday and the interim
government said it was carrying Eritrean weapon supplies for
rival Islamists.

Residents reported seeing a medium-sized aircraft with no
recognizable markings land at Mogadishu's old international
airport and unload large boxes. It was only the second plane to
land there since newly-powerful Islamists re-opened the airport
days ago.

Onlookers and journalists were prevented from entering the
area by hundreds of heavily-armed Islamist militiamen guarding
the airport with dozens of battle-wagons.

"The plane was carrying anti-aircraft missiles and other
weapons donated by Eritrea to the Islamists," deputy prime
minister Ismail Mohamed Hurre told Reuters from Baidoa,
provincial base of the fragile transitional government.

"We condemn this, it will add more problems to Somalia," he
added, without citing evidence for the weapons claim.

Senior Islamists -- who took Mogadishu from U.S.-backed
warlords in June and are in a standoff with the government that
has raised fears of war -- declined comment.

But one Islamist official, who asked not to be named, said
that instead of weapons, the plane had brought "small sewing
machines, which were a gift from a friendly country."

While the government alleges Eritrea is arming the
Islamists, they say Ethiopian troops have poured into Somalia
to protect President Abdullahi Yusuf's government.

The United Nations has an arms embargo on Somalia. But it
has been ignored for years, and the Horn of Africa nation of 10
million people is awash with light and heavy weaponry.


The plane controversy came as Islamist militia continued
their expansion by taking over areas formerly controlled by
defeated warlord Omar Finnish, residents said.

The Jilibmarka and Gandersi zones of southern Mogadishu
included several natural ports and had been run by non-aligned,
"freelance" militia since Finnish was ousted, they said.

"Islamic courts militia took over...arrested some freelance
militia who were extorting money from residents...and handed
over control to Madina Islamic Court," resident Mahad Maalim

The Islamists now control a large swathe of southern

Islamist leaders met during Wednesday to decide whether to
return to talks in Khartoum with the government, which has
indicated it is willing to negotiate.

The Islamists' most powerful leader, hardline cleric Sheikh
Hassan Dahir Aweys, has ruled out any meeting unless Ethiopia
stops its "invasion" of Somalia.

Another leader, Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, who is considered a
moderate, told a gathering of ex-military officers, some of
whom fought Ethiopia in a 1977-78 conflict, to prepare for war.

"You will be joined by the Islamic Courts militia in
defending the country and our religion against our enemies," he
said to chants of "God is great!"

Anti-Islamist Ethiopia has repeatedly denied sending
soldiers to defend the government, which is based in the small
town of Baidoa because it is powerless to move to the capital.

However, U.N. envoy Francois Lonseny Fall told Reuters on
Wednesday that Ethiopian troops were indeed stationed in
Baidoa, and another southern town, Wajid. But he dismissed
reports of up to 5,000 troops as exaggerated.

Diplomats fear that Ethiopia, and its old foe Eritrea, are
using Somalia as a proxy battleground to antagonize each other.

(Additional reporting by Andrew Cawthorne in Nairobi)