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Eritrea denies involvement in Somalia

Eritrea rejects findings of UN report. Obama denies crisis in relations with Israel. Jonathan dissolves Nigerian cabinet. Thai protestors vow to remain in Bangok. Khartoum signs second deal with rebel alliance. All this and more in today's briefing.
Josephine Whitaker
18 March 2010

A UN report  released has condemned the Red Sea state of Eritrea for violating an arms embargo in Somalia and continuing to flout a separate UN resolution condemning Eritrea’s violation of this embargo. Eritrea has repeatedly denied that it has ties to Somali militants. In a statement released on Monday, the foreign ministry dismissed the report as “concocted, baseless and unfounded”, and claimed that “Eritrea has not and would never extend any support to Somali armed groups.”

The report, authored by the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia acknowledges that Eritrean support to Somalia was reduced in 2009, and this represents a softening of the criticism contained in previous reports. However, it maintains that Asmara continues to give diplomatic, logistical and financial support to Somali rebels. One unnamed diplomat is reported by Reuters to have said that further evidence of Eritrea’s ties to Somali militant groups cannot be released on security grounds.

Security remains fragile in Somalia, where the current government retains effective control of just a few key districts of the capital. Wide swathes of the country, including much of southern Somalia are controlled by militant Islamist groups such as al-Shabaab and Hizub-ul Islam, which are committed to bringing down the federal transitional government of Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed.

The same report is also critical of the world food programme’s delivery of food aid, in support of 2.5 million Somalis. The report estimates that up to half of all food aid is diverted to corrupt contractors, local UN workers and Islamists.

The openSecurity verdict: Eritrea’s involvement in Somalia has a long history, which is intimately linked to its rivalry with larger neighbour Ethiopia. Eritrea has been linked to Somali militants as early as 1999, during the Ethiopian-Eritrean war (1998-2000). Both Ethiopian and Eritrean governments are thought to have supported opposing forces in Somalia, sustaining a proxy conflict in their common neighbour's territory. The Eritrean connection is thought to have continued throughout the past decade, with alleged Eritrean fighters captured in Somalia in 2007.

US-backed Ethiopian troops invaded Somalia in 2006, under the guise of defending Ethiopian sovereignty, but with the more expansive goal of supporting the federal transitional government against the hardline Islamic courts union, which had taken control of Mogadishu. The subsequent war, which lasted from 2006 to 2009, led many of the less committed members of the Islamic courts union to take refuge in Eritrea. Others broke off to form more militant groups such as al-Shabaab, originally the ICU’s youth wing, which continue to operate in Somalia today.

A UN embargo on the sale and supply of arms to Somalia has been imposed since 1992. However, it was only in 2009 that evidence of Eritrean support to Islamist militias such as al-Shabaab led to UN sanctions action. Allegations of Eritrean support to Somali militants led, in December 2009, to the passing of a further UN resolution, UN Resolution 1907 (2009), which expressed that the UN was ‘gravely concerned about findings that Eritrea had provided support to armed groups undermining peace and reconciliation in Somalia…’. Resolution 1907 also imposed an arms embargo, travel restrictions and an asset freeze on Eritrean political and military leaders.

This latest report finds that, although the scale of Eritrean support to militants may have decreased, support continues nonetheless. However, the Eritrean government has responded with denials of all the allegations contained in the report, and has launched attacks on the reports’ authors for making “utterly baseless allegations… in the name of the UN.” It has also called for evidence to be presented proving the allegations.

These allegations, regardless of Eritrean objections, are likely to further damage relations in east Africa. The report is also likely to cool further relations with the United States, a standing critic of Eritrean involvement in the Somali conflict. Whether the report will lead to further punitive measures against Eritrea remains to be seen.

The possibility of Eritrean support to Somali militants is yet further evidence of the disastrous impact that a failing or failed state can have on its neighbours. The long drawn out collapse of the Somali state has had ramifications not only for Eritrea, but also for Ethiopia, a key backer of Sharif’s administration, and its southern neighbour Kenya, which is reporting[l1]  infiltration of Somali militants as far south as Nairobi. Reports earlier this year also highlighted links between militancy in Somalia and Yemen, across the lawless Gulf of Aden.

Obama denies crisis in relations with Israel

US President Barack Obama has denied that there is a crisis in relations with Israel, after a war of words sparked by new settlement expansion plans in east Jerusalem cast the relationship in doubt. Speaking on Fox TV news on Wednesday, Obama described the new settlement expansion plans as “not helpful”, but reaffirmed the strength of US-Israel ties.

In an added complication, Hagai Ben-Artzi, brother-in-law to the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, publicly accused Obama of being anti-semitic. Netanyahu “strenuously” objected to his brother-in-laws comments. He also expressed “deep appreciation” for Obama’s commitment to Israeli security.

The crisis was sparked by an Israeli announcement last week of plans to build 1,600 new homes in east Jerusalem, which coincided with a visit by US Vice-President Joe Biden. The US described the announcement and plans as “an insult”. The debacle earlier this week prompted the Israeli envoy to Washington, Michael Oren, to comment that US-Israel relations had reached a 35-year low.

Jonathan dissolves Nigerian cabinet

Nigeria’s acting president, Goodluck Jonathan, has dissolved the Nigerian cabinet just one month after parliament empowered him to take over from ailing president Umaru Yar’Adua.

Jonathan did not give reasons for dissolving the cabinet, according to his (former) minister for information and communication, Dora Akunyili. However, local commentators believe that Jonathan’s move is an attempt to assert control over the government, which until its dissolution was dominated by Yar’Adua’s northern supporters.

Yar’Adua absence during a three months stay in Saudi Arabia, undergoing treatment for a heart condition, left the presidential seat vacant, until provisionally filled by Jonathan. Though Yar'Adua has since returned to the country, he remains unable to govern.

While some attempt to reassert his authority was expected after Yar’Adua’s surprise return, Jonathan’s earlier demotion of the justice minister and dismissal of a national security advisor seem now to have been only a foretaste of plans to reshape the government. However, according to the Financial Times, even Jonathan’s most ardent supporters are surprised at this latest move.

The dissolution of the cabinet does not automatically lead to elections, which are scheduled to take place by April 2011. Permanent secretaries will assume the government’s responsibilities for a fortnight, until a new cabinet is appointed. The reappointment process is likely to bring further political instability as competing interests jockey for power. Without a strong unified and representative cabinet, the country, facing ethnic violence in central city of Jos, and renewed militant action in the delta, where one militant group detonated two car bombs on Monday, will be further destabilised.

Thai protestors vow to remain in Bangok

Protestors who have crowded the Thai capital in their tens of thousands this week today vowed to continue mass anti-government rallies and declared “class warfare” until the government calls elections. The so-called ‘Red Shirts’, supporters of former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, have been conducting high-profile rallies all week, with the aim of forcing Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to call new elections.

The protests began at the weekend, with an estimated 100,000 protestors taking part, many of whom arrived in Bangkok in busloads from the provinces. On Tuesday and Wednesday, hundreds of litres of blood were spilled at the gates of Government House and the PM’s residence. On Wednesday, protest leaders were claiming that they were “close to victory”.

The rallies have forced Abhisit to take refuge in a fortified military base since Friday. However, local commentators have expressed doubt that the red shirts have the financing and organisational capacity to maintain their protests over the long term.

Khartoum signs second deal with rebel alliance

A major rebel alliance has signed a three-month ceasefire agreement with the Khartoum government, paving the way for future talks, a diplomatic source close to the negotiations told Reuters. This is the second deal with Darfur rebels signed by the government in the last month, highlighting the government’s high hopes to resolve the conflict prior to elections this year.

Today’s deal was signed with the Liberation and Justice Movement (LJM), an umbrella organisation of ten militant groups. Khartoum last month signed a deal with rebel Justice and Equality Movement (JEM). This leaves only one significant grouping, a faction of the Sudan Liberation Army led by Abdul Wahid, who have so far refused to engage in talks with the government.

The government is hopeful that these two agreements will pave the way for peace talks in Darfur, as Vice-President Ali Osman Taha concluded in a statement. However, tensions remain between the groups. JEM has been extremely dismissive of the LJM agreement, claiming that it’s rival has no forces on the ground anyway.

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