MOGADISHU, Somalia — Ethiopian troops seized towns throughout southern and central Somalia on Monday and bombed the international airport at Mogadishu, Somalia's capital, in a rapid escalation of a two-day-old offensive against Islamic fundamentalists who've controlled most of Somalia for the past six months.
The better-armed Ethiopians encountered no resistance from fighters of the fundamentalist Council of Islamic Courts at Baladweyne, a strategic town on the main road from Ethiopia into central Somalia, and later seized Aadado after fighting there. Ethiopian troops and Somali militiamen reportedly were advancing toward Jowhar, an Islamic fundamentalist stronghold 50 miles north of Mogadishu.
It's not clear, however, whether the Ethiopians intend to seize Jowhar or press their campaign to Mogadishu. Ethiopian officials said they've declared war on Somalia, and analysts said Ethiopian forces, equipped with tanks, heavy artillery and jet aircraft, would likely defeat the more lightly armed Islamic fighters in direct combat.
But analysts said the Ethiopians would be unable to control Somalia's vast expanses for an extended period and that prolonged fighting would rally both Somalis and foreign fighters to the Islamic cause. They suggested that Ethiopia's likely goal is to force the Islamic Courts to negotiate a power-sharing agreement with Somalia's weak, but internationally recognized transitional government headquartered at Baidoa.
"The goal is to break the court's military capacity and bring them back to the negotiating table from a position of weakness," said Matt Bryden, a consultant for the Belgium-based International Crisis Group, who's been monitoring the fighting from Nairobi, Kenya. "Neither side can win this conflict."
Tension between Ethiopia, whose Christian-led government sees itself as a bulwark against the spread of radical Islam, and the Council of Islamic Courts has been building since June, when the CIC seized control of Mogadishu. The CIC quickly routed militia leaders who'd been receiving aid from the United States as part of a CIA-run counter-terrorism program and expanded its control to much of southern and central Somalia, where it imposed Islamic law.
U.S. officials have charged that the CIC is sheltering al-Qaida figures believed responsible for attacks on Americans, though other diplomats and analysts have questioned the claims. U.S. officials have said they've urged restraint on Ethiopia, but analysts say the U.S. has signaled tacit approval of Ethiopian intervention through a series of recent actions, including a visit to the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, by Gen. John Abizaid, commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East.
Somalia's transitional government has almost no military forces of its own and is dependent on Ethiopia for protection.
On Sunday, Ethiopia, saying the CIC threatened its national security, acknowledged for the first time that it had thousands of troops inside Somalia and launched an offensive that included the bombing of four strategic towns in central and southern Somalia.
On Monday, Ethiopian ground forces moved forward on multiple fronts.
At Baladweyne, just a few miles from the Ethiopian border, Ethiopian troops encountered no resistance as they entered the town in the early morning, one day after Ethiopian planes had bombed what was described as a training camp for Islamic fighters. Within hours, according to residents of the town, several movie theaters that the CIC had ordered closed had reopened. A CIC ban on the sale and use of khat, a popular narcotic leaf that Somalis chew, also was lifted.
The Ethiopian forces imposed a three-day curfew on the town, even though many residents reported relief that the fundamentalists had been driven out.
Fierce fighting erupted in the districts of Daynuunay and Hiiran, northeast of Baidoa, where the two sides exchanged heavy artillery bombardments. Eyewitnesses said several fighters from both sides were killed, but there was no official word on casualties and no reliable way to determine their extent.
Fighting was also reported at Iidaale in the south.
In addition to the Mogadishu airport, Ethiopian planes bombed a CIC military airfield at Baledogle, 60 miles west of Mogadishu, and a bridge at Kalabayka in central Somalia, apparently in an effort to prevent Islamic forces from withdrawing toward the south and reinforcing positions closer to the capital.
The bombing of the airport at Mogadishu came at about 9:30 a.m. when fighter jets dropped two bombs on the runway. The bombs killed a woman maintenance worker and damaged the runway, but did not prevent the arrival an hour later of the CIC's top two leaders, Sheikh Hassan Daahir Aweys and Sheikh Shariif Sheikh Ahmed.
There was no official word on where the two officials had been, but rumors circulated that they'd spent the last two days in Eritrea, a bitter rival of Ethiopia and the CIC's principal backer. About 2,000 Eritrean troops are reported to be inside Somalia, but their role, if any, in the fighting was unclear.
Hundreds of foreign fighters, primarily from Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Asian peninsula, reportedly have arrived in recent days to bolster the CIC. Bryden said he'd received reports that many of those fighters were involved in fighting near Baidoa.
Bryden also said he was concerned that the bombing of the airport at Mogadishu would encourage the CIC, which has no aircraft at its disposal, to seek ways of bombing targets in Addis Ababa and to stir up religious tensions between Ethiopia's Christians and its Muslims, who make up about 50 percent of the country's population.
"From the perspective of the courts, bombing the Somali capital probably legitimizes bombing the enemy capital," Bryden said. "Whether you deliver it by air or by more primitive means is not the issue."
(McClatchy correspondent Mark Seibel contributed to this report from Washington, D.C.)