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US Urges Halt to Somali Conflict

The Bush administration is urging a halt to conflict in Somalia that has intensified since neighboring Ethiopia launched air strikes on the country's two main airports and sent ground troops into Somali territory. VOA's Michael Bowman reports from Washington, Ethiopia's military intervention is aimed at propping up the weak Somali government, which is challenged by a powerful Islamic militia.

The State Department says the United States is concerned by the deteriorating security situation in Somalia, and by the humanitarian impact of the fighting. A State Department spokesperson told VOA that Somali civilians should be protected, and that the United States is urging all Somali parties to cease hostile actions.

There was no mention of Ethiopia's role in the conflict. However, the spokesperson said the United States encourages all sides to return to the negotiating table to find a solution that will bring peace and security to Somalia and the region, mirroring earlier statements from the European Union as well as the Arab League.

Despite a decades-old border dispute between the two countries, Ethiopia and Somalia's interim government have formed a de facto military alliance to confront an Islamist militia that has seized large swaths of territory in the strife-ridden nation long dominated by warlords. Officials in largely Christian Ethiopia say they entered the conflict after Somali Islamists declared a holy war against their nation.

Ethiopian air strikes have prompted an angry response from the Islamic Courts' leadership. Deputy Chairman Abdirahman Janaqow spoke with reporters in Mogadishu.

He said, "Ethiopian air forces have aggressively targeted Mogadishu airport, wounding one woman. It is a cowardly attack. I urge the Somali people to be very alert and refrain from gathering together in one place, because the enemy may target you."

News reports from Somalia say Ethiopian-backed Somali troops have pushed Islamist forces from a border region between the two countries. Abdirahman Dinari, a spokesman for the Somali government, said, "From now on, we have closed the airports and the port, and there will be no access without permission from the Federal government of Somalia. Neighboring countries should help us on this issue. We are appealing to the people of Somalia to remain calm and work with the government."

The government wants to prevent foreign fighters from crossing into Somalia to help the Islamists.

The conflict is taking a heavy toll on civilians. At a refugee camp in the southern Somali port city of Kismayo, relief worker Dhakale Adam cited an urgent need for international assistance.

He said, "We have no food and no shelter in this camp. Three children have died. Old people are most vulnerable, and we desperately need help."

Militia leaders have expressed a desire to form a greater eastern African Islamist state, incorporating Islamic communities from Ethiopia, Djibouti, Somalia and Kenya.

Somalia's warring factional leaders signed a peace accord in early 2004, ending 13 years of conflict and paving the way for a United Nations-backed interim government and legislature. But the government has little power outside its headquarters in the town of Baidoa.