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Ethiopia Admits to Sending Military Trainers to Somalia

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi announced Thursday that he has sent military trainers to support Somalia’s interim government. The interim government is severely threatened by the military advances of the Islamic Courts Union militias.

However, in his statement to parliament, Meles did not say how many trainers he’s sent to Somalia – and also denied he has sent a fighting force there. That’s something a number of witnesses have disputed.

Dr. Alemante Gebre-Selassie is a professor of law at William & Mary College in Williamsburg in the southern US state of Virginia. He spoke to VOA English to Africa reporter Joe De Capua about why Meles made the announcement Thursday and not sooner.

He says, “This time is as much a good time to make this announcement as any because I believe that the government of Ethiopia, Ethiopia as a country, has important interests to protect in that region. And one would have to expect this kind of involvement by Ethiopia for its own security as well. The surprise to me is why didn’t he make the announcement earlier.”

Alemante says those interests stem from modern and historical reasons. “The two countries (Somalia and Ethiopia) have gone to war against each other several times before. The latest of which occurred in 1977-78, which claimed many, many lives on both sides and also involved many outside states…because Somalia has always had a claim on the Ogaden region, which is now called the Somali state within Ethiopia, ever since the creation of the Somali state,” he says.

He adds that Ethiopia’s renewed interest in the region stems from the rise of an Islamic fundamentalist movement, which appears to want to lay claim to the Ogaden. Alemante says fear of Islamic fundamentalism runs deep in Ethiopia.

“Ethiopia remembers from its history back in the 16th Century the consequences of Islamic movements of this kind. Because Ethiopia suffered enormous losses, destruction of churches…and massive forced conversions of Christians into becoming Muslims…this lives in the psyche of many Christian Ethiopians,” he says.

Alemante says there are signs that neighboring Eritrea may be supporting the Islamic movement in an effort to relieve military pressure along its border with Ethiopia.