Somali government troops, backed by Ethiopian forces, Wednesday were heading to the Somali capital, the base of the Islamic Courts Union. But Ethiopia's information minister tells VOA it is not his country's intention to take control of the capital. Meanwhile, analysts say Ethiopia may be getting in over its head if it plans to conduct a long-term offensive against Somali Islamists. Cathy Majtenyi reports for VOA from Nairobi.
By midday Wednesday local time, government troops were some 30 kilometers outside of Mogadishu. Earlier, government troops, backed by Ethiopian forces, took control of the town of Jowhar, some 90 kilometers north of the capital.
Although Ethiopian forces have been heavily involved in Somalia's recent fighting, Ethiopia's Minister of Information Berhane Hailu tells VOA Somali government troops are on their own in the capital.
"The forces of the Ethiopian defense are not in a position, or they do not have [a] strategy, to enter Mogadishu. If it is necessary to control Mogadishu, the forces of the transitional federal government are enough," he said. "So, the priority that should be given at this moment is to have peace talks between the transitional government and the Islamic Courts."
But eyewitnesses in Jowhar Wednesday told the French news agency, AFP, that Ethiopian troops appeared to be marching towards Mogadishu after Islamist fighters fled the town. One resident said he was under the impression that the fighting is heading to the capital.
Somalia's ambassador to Ethiopia, Abdikarin Farah, Wednesday told reporters in Addis Ababa that Somali government troops also do not intend to go into Mogadishu so as to avoid incurring civilian casualties, but plan to surround the city until Islamist fighters surrender. The Islamists, in the meantime, vowed to re-group in the capital and continue the war.
Ethiopian forces played an active role in heavy fighting in various parts of Somalia over the past week, bombing two airports, firing missiles at retreating Islamic fighters, and waging ground battles alongside government troops.
Minister Berhane explains why Ethiopia joined forces with Somalia to battle with fighters from the Islamic Courts Union.
"They are a threat to the national interests of Ethiopia. They have been planning to attack Ethiopia in different ways, including terrorist acts around the Somali region in Ethiopia, [also] in some parts of the country, including Addis Ababa [Ethiopian capital]. So our interest is both to protect our national interest and also to assist the transitional federal government of Somalia," he said.
The Islamic Courts Union, meanwhile, has long spoken out against Ethiopia's support of Somalia's transitional government and vehemently opposes the presence of foreign peacekeepers in the country, particularly from Ethiopia.
The recent fighting was sparked by the passing of a deadline the Islamists set to order Ethiopian troops to leave Somalia or else face war.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi Tuesday declared that his forces had "broken the back" of the Islamic Courts Union and forced them to retreat, leading Ethiopia to be "halfway" to a decisive victory.
But some analysts say that it could be very difficult for Ethiopia to sustain a longer-term offensive against Somali Islamists.
David Shinn is a former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia who is now a political science professor at George Washington University.
He tells VOA that, while Ethiopia may have scored a short-term military victory against the Islamists, the Islamists would likely resume fighting once Ethiopia withdraws, as the withdrawal could create a partial vacuum.
Shinn says he questions the overall gain to Somalia from the presence of Ethiopian troops, but says the situation would be worse if Ethiopia decides to stay.
"If the Ethiopians attempt to stay for a long period of time, which they say they're not, then you open up the prospect of a long, drawn-out, and nasty guerilla conflict, which I don't think that the Ethiopians find a very pleasant situation," he said.
Meanwhile, as the fighting rages in Somalia, Djibouti and Kenya called on the Ethiopian government to pull its troops out of Somalia, saying that the troops' presence threatens regional stability. Kenya says it is arranging an emergency regional meeting on the issue.
The U.S. State Department Tuesday issued a statement urging Ethiopia to show "maximum restraint" in Somalia, but saying that Ethiopia has "genuine security concerns" and has sent its troops into Somalia at the request of the "legitimate governing authority" of the Baidoa-based transitional government.