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U.S. condemns Somali Islamists' war ultimatum
By Andrew Cawthorne
NAIROBI, Dec 14 - The United States on Thursday condemned as "irresponsible" a threat by Somalia's Islamist movement to attack Ethiopian troops backing the Horn of Africa nation's interim government unless they leave within days.
The defense chief for the Mogadishu-based Islamists gave the ultimatum on Tuesday. He said Ethiopia has more than 30,000 troops on Somali soil to bolster the administration of President Abdillahi Yusuf in Baidoa, the only town in government control.
But Addis Ababa has scoffed at the war threat, saying it only has a few hundred trainers with the Somali government, which is backed by the West in a 14th attempt since 1991 to restore central rule to the conflict-riven nation.
"The United States regrets the irresponsible 'ultimatum' issued by the Islamic Courts," U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Jennifer Barnes said from Washington's Nairobi mission, which has responsibility for Kenya and Somalia.
"Given the existing heightened tensions in Somalia, this ultimatum further destabilizes the situation and undermines international and regional efforts to encourage credible dialogue between Somali parties," she added.
The Islamists' deadline for Ethiopian withdrawal has heightened fears of all-out war in Somalia, where skirmishes have taken place between reconnaissance teams from government and Islamist troops close to each other near Baidoa.
The Islamists took Mogadishu in June and have expanded across south Somalia since then.
Fighters from the religious movement effectively flank the government on three sides, and rival soldiers are just a few kilometers (miles) apart at a slim front line near Baidoa.
Diplomats fear any fighting could quickly spill into a regional war given that Ethiopia openly supports the government while its arch-foe Eritrea is accused of sending arms and fighters to help the Somalia Islamic Courts Council (SICC).
Foreign nations are urging the Somali rivals to return to peace talks, which stalled in Khartoum last month.
However a U.N. resolution endorsing an African peacekeeping mission -- which the government wants, but the Islamists have sworn to fight -- has made a quick resumption of talks unlikely.
Washington pushed for the U.N. motion despite European and analysts' fears that instead of promoting peace, a foreign force might inflame the situation and draw jihadists to Somalia.
"You had the bizarre situation where only one country wanted this resolution, and everyone else disagreed, but it got through because of who that country is," said a Western diplomat.
Washington argues the arrival of a formal African peacekeeping force to protect the government would pave the way for an exit of Ethiopian and Eritrean forces in Somalia.
And the head of the African Union (AU) backed that view at a regional summit in Kenya, saying peacekeepers were needed to stop the "rot" in Somalia. "If we do not do this now, then we must prepare ourselves for the emergence of ethnic republics and religious republics in the coming years," he said. (Additional reporting by Daniel Wallis)