The Somali capital, Mogadishu, has in late March and early April 2007 been witnessing the heaviest fighting and most woeful destruction since the start of the civil war in the early 1990s. A local human-rights organisation recorded nearly 400 deaths and more than 500 people wounded during just four days of fighting between the two sides (in their way more coalitions than single entities): the Ethiopian army, operating in support of Somalia's transitional federal government (TFG), versus Islamic fighters and militias from the city's dominant clan, the Hawiye.
The primary victims of the violence are, as so often, civilians. The United Nations estimates that as many as 100,00o people have fled Mogadishu since February, among them 47,000 since 21 March alone. These figures add many more displaced to the huge numbers of Somalis - uneasily settled, or on the road - who are unable to find even the minimal security to build their own lives in their own country.
A fragile ceasefire agreed between Hawiye clan elders and Ethiopian officials on 1 April (which came into effect the next day) has brought a brief calm; the two sides are due to reconvene on 5 April. There remains disagreement on at least two key points relating to the Ethiopian army: its withdrawal from the areas it has recently captured, and setting a timetable for its evacuation of Somalia as a whole.
A further drawback of this Mogadishu deal could derail it in any case: the fact that the Somali government feels excluded from it, and is unhappy with the process or the result (or both). Some reports indeed suggest that the Somali government was not invited to the talks between the clan elders and the Ethiopian officials. In defence of the TFG's position, deputy defence minister Salad Ali Jeelle has been pressing on the media its view that the ceasefire agreement is "non-existent".
On 5 April, the TFG's president Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed said that the conditions of insecurity meant that he was postponing a national-reconciliation conference scheduled to be held in Mogadishu on 16 April. Meanwhile, both the main sides are organising reinforcements. All the indications are that another round of fighting is inevitable. A human tragedy is enveloping Mogadishu.
Harun Hassan worked for Associated Press and the BBC in Somalia. He currently works as a freelancer
Also by Harun Hassan in openDemocracy:
"Not housewives any more: Somali women of the diaspora"
"Black Hawk Down: the Baghdad sequel?"
"The Axis of Anarchy'"
"Iraq: the lesson from Somalia"
"Somalia: exit into history?"
"America's two faces in Somalia"
"Yahya: death of a peace campaigner"
"Somalia twists in the wind"
"Somalia's new Islamic leadership"
"Somalia's thorny road"
"Somalia's stony path"
(5 October 2006)
"Somalia slides into war"
(3 November 2006)
"Somalia: diplomacy's last chance"
(6 December 2006)
"Somalia at the crossroads"
(10 January 2007)
"Somalia: the way forward"
(13 February 2007)
Somalia and its neighbours
The new round of confrontation followed three months of unrest and sporadic clashes since the entry of Somali government troops, backed by the Ethiopians, into Mogadishu in January 2007.
The appearance of a lightning victory by the TFG was always deceptive. From the start, it has been unable to impose its authority in Mogadishu. The daily or near-daily attacks on its forces and the Ethiopians have intensified, gradually forcing the nominal allies to launch a further offensive. As the Mogadishu fighting escalated in the early weeks of 2007, initial reports suggested that members or supporters of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) were responsible for most of the attacks. But in regard to the latest fighting at least, it is also believed that several other groups - Hawiye clan militias, supporters of Mogadishu warlords who failed to secure positions within the TFG, and independent Somali nationalists - have all been involved.
The international community, itself divided, is both help and hindrance. The International Contact Group on Somalia (ICGS) - a informal gathering of diplomats from the United Nations, United States, the European Union, the Arab world and African states (including the Intergovernmental Authority on Development) - issued a statement from its meeting in Cairo on 3 April; this condemned the fighting and demanded that "all parties in Somalia comply with international humanitarian law, guarantee the safety and security for all humanitarian and relief work in Somalia, and ensure the protection of the Somali population".
Meanwhile, the African Union (AU) has promised - under the auspices of the United Nations-sanctioned African Union Mission to Somalia (Amisom) - to send 8,000 peacekeeping troops to Somalia, and the first contingent of these (1,500 Ugandans) arrived in Mogadishu in March. But neither the declamations of the ICGS nor the presence of AU forces addresses the main source of the current phase of conflict in Somalia: the continued presence of the Ethiopians.
Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia's prime minister, had said at the time of their swift advance that his troops would leave Somalia within a few weeks. Now it seems that he has backtracked on this pledge. Notwithstanding the fact that the Ethiopians have been working alongside the Somali government, it seems that they still have their own "unfinished business" in the territory of their neighbour and historic adversary. At least part of its ambition in Somalia is connected too to the interests of another stakeholder in the country: the United States, which strongly supported the offensive against the Islamic Courts when the latter controlled Mogadishu.