Islamic militiamen say they plan to seize Somali base
Action could spell end of UN-backed interim regime
MOGADISHU, Somalia -- The Islamic militiamen holding most of southern Somalia deployed hundreds of fighters outside the base of the UN-backed interim government yesterday and said they planned to seize it.
Seizing Baidoa would make the Islamic militia -- which the United States has linked to Al Qaeda -- the uncontested authority over most of the country.
Neighboring Ethiopia said it was prepared to invade to defend the Somali government.
``We have the responsibility to defend the border and the Somali government. We will crush them," Ethiopia's minister of information, Berhan Hailu, said.
The interim government was on high alert and ready to defend itself from a militia attack, Deputy Information Minister Salad Ali Jelle said.
The administration, however, is virtually powerless and barely able to control Baidoa, 150 miles northwest of the capital, Mogadishu.
The militiamen seized Mogadishu last month and have installed increasingly strict religious rule that sparked fears of a Taliban-style hard-line regime in this anarchic Horn of Africa nation. The United States has accused the militia of links to Al Qaeda that include sheltering suspects in the 1998 bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
Osama bin Laden has called Somalia a front in his global war against the United States and its allies.
``Nothing will stop us from going into Baidoa," said Sheik Muqtar Robow, deputy defense chief for the Islamic group. He said more than 130 fighters who were loyal to Somali transitional President Abdullahi Yusuf had defected to the Islamists' side.
A lower-ranking Islamic official denied fighters were planning to seize Baidoa, offering a different explanation for why the Islamists were spotted on the outskirts of the government seat.
``Our aim of going to the region is to convince people in the region to implement Islamic law and establish Islamic courts," said Mohamed Ibrahim Bilal, head of the local militia that seized control of Bur Haqaba.
Yusuf is allied with Ethiopia, and has asked for its support. Ethiopia has intervened militarily in Somalia in the past, and hundreds of Ethiopian troops have been spotted along the countries' border in recent weeks.
The Somali Islamist militants are allied with Muslim separatists in the Oromo region of Ethiopia.
A Cabinet minister in the Somali interim government was reported Tuesday to be recruiting militiamen to bolster the government and the deployment outside Baidoa appeared to be a pre-emptive strike.
Relations between the government and the Islamic militiamen already were strained after the government accused the Islamic group of planning to attack Baidoa, receiving help from foreign terrorists and massacring government supporters during recent fighting in Mogadishu.
The government had refused to meet the Islamic group in peace talks set for last Saturday in neighboring Sudan, although it appeared to reverse course Monday under pressure from foreign governments pushing for a unified Somali administration.
The status of the talks was thrown into uncertainty by yesterday 's deployment.
Since its seizure of Mogadishu, the Islamic group has cracked down on purportedly non-Islamic activities such as a wedding with live music and a World Cup screening -- shooting and killing two people who were watching.