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Crisis management

International | No one has to play a dirge to know there's too much conflict in the air

Issue: "Living a legend," Aug. 19, 2006

When Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice attended the annual Association of Southeast Asian Nations dinner in late July, she opted not to do the traditional lighthearted skit. Colin Powell once danced to the Village People's "YMCA" in a hardhat; a Russian diplomat last year did a Darth Vader (complete with light saber) impression. This year Rice-just off a round-the-clock diplomacy mission to Beirut, Tel Aviv, and Rome-played a somber Brahms piano sonata instead.

This month times are somber still: Terror alerts are up, ceasefire proposals to halt the Israel-Hezbollah war are stuttering, while Israeli air strikes and Hezbollah rocket attacks on mostly civilian areas appear unrelenting. The death toll of mostly civilians and some soldiers neared 1,000. Meanwhile, Iraq deteriorated further with daily strings of Baghdad bombings killing dozens a day. Add to the Mideast violence other brewing crises, and July was the "grimmest month for conflict prevention" in three years, according to the International Crisis Group. With Mideast news dominating, Somalia, Sri Lanka, and North Korea are scenes of conflict and crisis pushed to the foreground.

Somalia

Islamic radicals who seized control of the Horn of Africa state in June have consolidated their power in the capital, Mogadishu, and have menaced the seat of the nation's transitional government, Baidoa. By late June, the militia-backed group of 11 Islamist courts had tweaked its name and installed a new leader: Now calling itself the Supreme Council of Islamic Courts, its head is Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, a known Islamic extremist with suspected ties to al-Qaeda.

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Already the courts have banned entertainment such as movies and music, and disrupted Somalis watching World Cup games.

If that sounds familiar, analysts are already noting the parallels between Somalia and chaos-ridden Afghanistan in the mid-1990s. The transitional government, formed in 2004, is also in disarray, with 40 cabinet members quitting in early August over Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Ghedi's refusal to negotiate with the Islamists. The president then dissolved the cabinet on Aug. 7.

Omar Jamal, executive director of the St. Paul, Minn.-based Somali Justice Advocacy Center, said the fractious government needs to discard its internal animosities. "If that doesn't happen, the extremists and militants will take over the country and we'll have a Taliban-style government," he told WORLD.

Adding to the crisis are fractious neighbors Ethiopia and Eritrea. Some 400 Ethiopian troops crossed the border and are now stationed in Baidoa in support of the transitional government, with about 200 more elsewhere. With its 40 million Muslims, Ethiopia considers the thought of extremism spilling across its border a "nightmare," Jamal said.

With its reviled enemy (Ethiopia) deep in Somalian territory, Eritrea plunged in on the Islamists' side, supplying militants with arms. The motive is simple: to harass Ethiopia as much as possible. The two countries have had a bitter border disagreement for years, and Somalia could become a proxy ground for their dispute.

While the Islamic Courts Council is a reportedly disparate group of moderates and extremists, the extremists now have the upper hand. They are eager to rule all of Somalia, and so are avoiding talks with the transitional government scheduled in Sudan under the Arab League's auspices. "It looks like the radicals are still in command, because they control the funding and they command the militias on the ground," Jamal said. And if the country slides back into full-scale civil war, terrorists looking to milk the opportunity may not be far behind.

Sri Lanka

One blocked water channel was all it took to wash out a ceasefire agreement and risk fresh civil war on the South Asian island. For almost a year, the Sri Lankan government and the terrorist-separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam have had more violent exchanges. But a fight in the northeastern Trincomalee District is turning into the worst violence since a 2002 ceasefire.

In late July the government began air strikes on the town of Muttur to force the Tamil Tigers to open an irrigation channel that waters the land of ethnic Sinhalese in government-held territory. Tamilians are the minority on the majority-Sinhalese island, and their militant wing, the Tamil Tigers, had fought the government for 20 years until Norway brokered the ceasefire.

Exchanges of artillery and mortar fire have driven civilians from Muttur out of their homes into surrounding towns. According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, the number displaced was about 23,000 after two weeks of fighting.

Davide Vignati, the ICRC's spokesman in Colombo, told WORLD that aid groups had not had access to Muttur for days. They were also scrambling to help the displaced, building water and sanitation systems and handing out survival kits. Muttur's hospital, he said, had its maternity ward hit and two ambulances bombed.

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