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Analysis: War looms in the Horn of Africa

By CLAUDE SALHANI, UPI International Editor

WASHINGTON, Dec. 27 (UPI) -- The number of dead in the conflict between Somalia and Ethiopia are unknown and will probably remain unknown; such is the confusion around this latest war being played out in the Horn of Africa.

International aid workers speak of more than 800 people wounded since the fighting took a turn for the worse when Ethiopian warplanes began strafing and bombing Somali positions just before Christmas. And those are the wounded that managed to find their way to a hospital, clinic or care center. Countless of less fortunate will perish in the inhospitable land as they die of thirst, infection, bombs and the enemy's weapons, or all the above.

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Jet fighters of the Ethiopian Air Force are reported to have fired missiles and machine cannons on groups of retreating Somali Islamist fighters near the government outpost of Baidoa Tuesday. It was the third day that Ethiopians continue to use their air force in the conflict.

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The fighting involves Somalia's interim -- and secular -- government, which is fighting against a wide collection of Islamist warlords who are believed by Washington to be backed by al-Qaida. The Ethiopians are backing the Somali government forces, now reported to be only about 40 miles from the capital, Mogadishu.

On one side of the conflict is Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi who is supporting Somali President Abdullahi Yusuf against Somali Islamist leader Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys.

The Islamists had initially taken a foothold in the southern part of the country. Last summer they stormed Mogadishu, forcing the government to flee. Initially at least, the Islamist rebels enjoyed the support of the people as they promised to impose law and order in what had become a chaotic society for nearly two decades. The Islamists imposed Islamic law, or sharia, in areas that fell under their control.

Somalia had been in a state of flux and anarchy since the departure of the last strongman, Siad Barre, who was ousted in a coup in 1991.

Somalia is a former British protectorate known as British Somaliland until the British withdrew in 1960 to permit it joining up with Italian Somaliland and form the new nation of Somalia.

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In 1969, a coup headed by Mohammad Siad Barre saw the establishment of an authoritarian socialist rule. Barre managed to impose a degree of stability in the country for about 20 years. But he was overthrown in 1991 and the country split into complete anarchy with several provinces declaring themselves independent -- independence no country recognized.

The United Nations began a two-year humanitarian effort in 1993, primarily in the south, to alleviate famine conditions. But the U.N. withdrew in 1995 after taking significant casualties, including American troops who were killed when their helicopter crashed in Mogadishu. The incident involving the U.S. intervention was rendered famous in the book "Blackhawk Down" which was later made into a Hollywood blockbuster.

The mandate of the Transitional National Government, or TNG, was created in August 2000 in Arta, in nearby Djibouti. It expired in August 2003. That was followed by a two-year peace process led by the government of Kenya under the auspices of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development; it concluded in October 2004 with the election of Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed as Transitional Federal President of Somalia.

Meanwhile, another humanitarian crisis is in the making with unknown thousands of people fleeing the fighting. Already stretched thin by the crisis in the Darfur, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees fears that the swelling number of Somali refugees will hamper existing relief operations in the region. The U.N. relief agency said the fighting caused the displacement of approximately 34,000 Somalis who sought refuge in neighboring Kenya.

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Once again, those numbers are just estimates. But as the Soviet dictator Josef Stalin once said, "A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic." The conflict in Somalia is beyond the tragedy but not quite yet a statistic.

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(Comments may be sent to Claude@upi.com.)

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