| An Islamist fighter at Mogadishu airport on Monday. (AP)
Mogadishu, Dec. 25 (Reuters): Ethiopian warplanes attacked two Islamist-held airfields in Somalia today, witnesses said, in the most dramatic strikes yet of a war threatening to engulf the Horn of Africa.
The attacks — one on the capital Mogadishu — came hours after neighbouring Ethiopia formally declared war, saying it was protecting its sovereignty against a movement run by terrorists.
Fighting raged for a seventh day near Daynunay, close to the government seat, Baidoa. Witnesses reported truck-loads of Ethiopian wounded being evacuated, and Islamist soldiers were said to be reciting the Quran as they went into battle.
A MiG fighter struck Mogadishu’s international airport with machinegun fire soon after dawn, airport managing director Abdirahim Adan said. Three jets later attacked Somalia’s biggest military airfield at Baledogle, 100 km west of Mogadishu.
“They are targeting the runway and I can see it being hit,” said an Islamist fighter.
The week of intense fighting between Islamists and the Ethiopian- and western- backed secular interim government has turned long-running hostilities into open war. Analysts say Ethiopia seems to have halted the initial Islamist assault and saved the government from being overrun.
The Somalia Islamic Courts Council's (SICC) website hailed “mujahideen” troops who, it said, chanted passages from the Quran as they went into battle against militarily superior Ethiopian “crusaders”. Addis Ababa and Washington say the Islamists, who hold most of southern Somalia after seizing Mogadishu in June, are terrorists backed by Ethiopia’s enemy, Eritrea, and by al Qaida.
Ethiopia has vowed to protect the government, which is virtually encircled by Islamist fighters in the town of Baidoa, halfway between Mogadishu and the Ethiopian border.
A government spokesman said the administration approved of Ethiopian use of air power. “Anywhere terrorists use to bring in arms and ammunition deserves to be hit,” said Abdirahman Dinari. The government said it had closed all borders — a largely symbolic measure given that it has little power beyond Baidoa.
Ethiopia said it had attacked the capital’s airport to stop “illegal flights” following the closure of Somalia’s borders. “It was also reported some of the extremists were waiting for an airlift out of Mogadishu,” an Ethiopian spokesman said.
Aid agencies, struggling to get help to more than a million Somalis afflicted by conflict and weeks of floods in one of the world’s poorest countries, said they had not been told about the closure of borders.
The Islamists accused Ethiopia of targeting civilians, and repeated a threat to attack its capital.“We shall strike Addis Ababa the way they hit Mogadishu,” SICC spokesman Abdirahman Ali Mudey said. “These air strikes will not continue... even if it means getting weapons from outside.”