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U.S. support key to Ethiopia's invasion

By Barbara Slavin

USA Today, 1/7/2007

 

WASHINGTON — The United States has quietly poured weapons and military advisers into Ethiopia, whose recent invasion of Somalia opened a new front in the Bush administration's war on terrorism.

A Christian-led nation in sub-Saharan Africa, surrounded almost entirely by Muslim states, Ethiopia has received nearly $20 million in U.S. military aid since late 2002. That's more than any country in the region except Djibouti.

Last month, thousands of Ethiopian troops invaded neighboring Somalia and helped overturn a fundamentalist Islamic government that the Bush administration said was supported by al-Qaeda.

The U.S. and Ethiopian militaries have "a close working relationship," Pentagon spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Joe Carpenter said. The ties include intelligence sharing, arms aid and training that gives the Ethiopians "the capacity to defend their borders and intercept terrorists and weapons of mass destruction," he said.

Advisers from the Guam national guard have been training Ethiopians in basic infantry skills at two camps in Ethiopia, said Maj. Kelley Thibodeau, a spokeswoman for U.S. forces in Djibouti.

There are about 100 U.S. military personnel currently working in Ethiopia, Carpenter said.

Somalia has been the region's primary concern for the U.S. government since the early 1990s. U.S. troops, sent to Somalia as part of a peacekeeping and humanitarian mission, withdrew in 1994 after a failed attempt to capture a clan leader led to the deaths of 18 U.S. soldiers in 1993. The incident was later dramatized in the book and movie Black Hawk Down.

The country has had no central government since 1991. The capital, Mogadishu, has been controlled by a series of warlords. A fundamentalist movement called the Islamic Courts consolidated power by defeating the warlords six months ago.

Ethiopia responded in December, invading to oust the Islamic Courts and prop up a government backed by the United Nations and Western countries.

At least 8,000 Ethiopian troops remain in Somalia, according to United Nations observers.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has said he would like to be able to withdraw his troops in a few weeks. But there has been little progress in creating an African peacekeeping force to replace the Ethiopians.

Meanwhile, the ousted Islamic movement has begun attacking the Ethiopian troops. And, in an audiotape aired Friday on a website used frequently by Islamic militants, al-Qaeda No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahri urged Somalis to defeat "the crusader Ethiopian invasion forces."

Ethiopia's population is split almost equally between Muslims and Christians, but there are concerns that the Ethiopian intervention "will be framed as another Christian vs. Muslim war," said retired Marine general Joseph Hoar, who headed the U.S. Central Command from 1991-94.

The Bush administration understands that Ethiopia's intervention "is against international terrorism, not against Islam," said Samuel Assefa, Ethiopia's ambassador to the United States.

The close U.S. embrace of Ethiopia is risky, in the view of several Africa experts and human rights advocates. Even though Ethiopia had good reasons of its own for intervening to blunt a Somali threat to its security, it is perceived as acting on behalf of the United States, said William Zartman, an Africa expert at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.

The intervention is controversial in Ethiopia, where the Meles government has become increasingly repressive, said Chris Albin-Lackey, an African researcher at Human Rights Watch.

The Meles government has limited the power of the opposition in parliament and arrested thousands. A government inquiry concluded that security forces fatally shot, beat or strangled 193 people who protested election fraud in 2005.

At least 96 prisoners, including several opposition leaders, journalists and the former mayor of Addis Ababa, face charges of treason, plotting to commit genocide and inciting violence, Albin-Lackey said.

Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., plans to re-introduce legislation in Congress that would tie U.S. aid to Ethiopia to an improved record on human rights, but the prospects of passage are uncertain. "We have to be careful that that old maxim — the enemy of my enemy is my friend — does not make us unwitting enablers of abuse," Smith said.

 



 



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