UN Secretary General Kofi Annan warned Somalia's neighbours to stay out on Wednesday, as UN experts painted an alarming picture of foreign and extremist intervention in a nation on the brink of all-out war that could engulf the Horn of Africa.
"We have a very serious situation in Somalia," Annan told reporters at a UN climate change conference in the Kenyan capital, urging the country's weak government and powerful Islamist movement to return to peace talks.
As a new report emerged detailing "rampant arms flows" to both Somali sides in violation of a 1992 UN arms embargo, he also called for other nations to keep clear and prevent the situation from deteriorating into full-scale war. "It is already a difficult and volatile situation," Annan said. "We do not need to see it further complicated by neighbouring countries rushing in with troops or guns to support one side. It will only compound the problem."
The report, to be presented this week to the UN Security Council, says that seven nations and the militant Lebanese movement Hizbullah have sent military aid to the Islamists, while three countries are backing the government. It says the "unprecedented and highly exacerbated" situation contains "all of the ingredients for the increasing possibility of a violent, widespread, and protracted military conflict" in most of Somalia.
"Moreover, there is the distinct possibility that (it) may spill over into a direct state-to-state conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea, as well as acts of terrorism in other vulnerable states of the region," it says.
Arch-foes Ethiopia and Eritrea, still at odds over their 1998-2000 border war, have thousands of combat troops in Somalia, according to the report. Both countries deny this, although Ethiopia admits to sending military advisers. Backing the Islamists are Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Iran, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Hizbullah, while Ethiopia, Uganda and Yemen are supporting the government, according to the report, a copy of which was obtained by AFP.
Nearly all of the named nations deny violating the arms embargo but the report provides detailed information about weapons shipments, including shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles and other sophisticated equipment, and the provision of other military aid.
The 80-page report covers the period from May to October, during which time the Islamists seized Mogadishu from US-backed warlords and took control of much of southern and central Somalia, imposing a harsh brand of Sharia law. The Islamists and government are now girding for battle in two areas, one around the government seat of Baidoa and the other near the border with the semi-autonomous enclave of Puntland, north of Mogadishu.
The report records names, dates and locations of such transactions, including a donation to the Islamists of one million dollars by Libya and the creation of a reciprocal relationship between the Islamists and Hizbullah.
Eritrea, it says, provided the Islamists with "at least 28 separate consignments of arms, ammunition and military equipment," including a July 23 delivery of the surface-to-air missiles and infrared-guided anti-tank weapons. Shipments to the Islamists from other countries, notably Iran, Egypt and Syria are also detailed, as is the July 27 departure of 200 Muslim gunmen from Somalia to Syria "to undergo military training in guerrilla warfare."
It also said the Islamists sent about 720 battle-hardened fighters to Lebanon in mid-July to wage war against Israel alongside Hizbullah.
Only about 80 returned to Somalia, the report says. In exchange, according to the report, Hizbullah arranged for additional support to be given to the Islamists by Iran and Syria, both of which are accused by the United States and others of supporting terrorism.
Elements in the Somali Islamist movement are believed to have ties with al-Qaeda and earlier this month the United States warned US citizens in neighbouring Kenya and Ethiopia of suicide attacks by Somali extremists. Somalia has been without a functioning central authority since the 1991 ousting of strongman Mohamed Siad Barre and the two-year-old transitional government has been unable to assert control.