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Eritrea Denies Supporting Somalia Insurgents

The government in Eritrea is angrily denying U.S. accusations that it is supporting insurgents in Somalia in order to fight a proxy war against Eritrea's arch rival, Ethiopia. VOA Correspondent Alisha Ryu has details from our East Africa Bureau in Nairobi.

Eritrean presidential spokesman Yemane Gebremeskel says the United States is mistaken in its belief that Eritrea is actively backing an insurgency in Somalia to hurt Ethiopia and topple Ethiopian allies in the Somali interim government.

Eritrea and Ethiopia fought a brutal border war between 1998 and 2000, which killed more than 70,000 people. The two countries have remained hostile ever since.

But Gebremeskel says his country has no interest in meddling in Somalia, where several thousand Ethiopian troops in the capital, Mogadishu, had fought pitched battles against insurgents in recent weeks.

"If there is opposition to Ethiopia, it is not coming from Eritrea," said Gebremeskel. "We have problems with Ethiopia over the border, but that is a separate matter. Eritrea has not aggravated the situation in Somalia in any way. We are not supporting one faction against another. So, these accusations are baseless."

Gebremeskel is referring to comments Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer made on Saturday in Nairobi, hours after returning from a surprise visit to Baidoa, Somalia to meet with the country's interim leaders.

Secretary Frazer said Eritrea remained the country of most concern for the United States because Asmara, along with the al-Qaida terrorist network, is giving support to radicals inside Somalia's Islamic Courts Union.

The Islamist movement was driven out of power last December by the Ethiopian military and the United States believes the movement's radical leaders and supporters form the core of an increasingly violent insurgency that has triggered the worst fighting in Somalia since the country descended into political anarchy nearly 16 years ago.

Frazer says Eritrea is giving particular support to a hardline, Somali group called the Shabbab, whose founder, Adan Hashi Ayro, has been recently chosen to lead al-Qaida's cell in Somalia.

Allegations of Eritrean support for Somali extremists are not new.

Last November, a U.N. report said that Eritrea had supplied weapons and training to militant Islamist fighters to undermine Ethiopia's support of the transitional government. In subsequent interviews with several Shabbab members in Mogadishu, VOA learned that hundreds of Shabbab fighters spent time in terrorist training camps in Eritrea.

Eritrea insists it has done nothing wrong and is working toward finding a way to stabilize Somalia. Yemane Gebremeskel says in that sense, Eritrea and the United States have similar goals.

"There has to be a viable peace process and all external forces, if they are interested in the welfare of Somalia, should help the Somalis launch a credible reconciliation process," he said.

The recent fighting in Mogadishu, which killed and wounded more than one thousand people, was sparked by an Ethiopian-led offensive to secure the capital before an April 16th national reconciliation conference.

On Saturday, interim government leaders hosting the conference announced it would be postponed until sometime next month.