4 July 2009

Somalia: Military Tensions High in Hiran Region Near Ethiopia Border

Beletwein — Ethiopian troops have reportedly moved closer to Beletwein after spending weeks at Kala-Beyr junction, a strategic crossroads that connects the central regions to the northeastern State of Puntland and Ethiopia's Somali-inhabited eastern regions.

Hiran region is home to three Somali Islamist factions: the pro-government Islamic Courts Union (ICU) faction, led by Hiran ruler Sheikh Abdirahman Ibrahim Ma'ow; Hizbul Islam rebels loyal to Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys; and Al Shabaab guerrillas.

On Saturday, hundreds of government soldiers and ICU fighters were deployed at important government installations in Beletwein, including the main administration building and the central police station.

Local sources reported that Gen. Muktar Hussein Afrah, who came from Mogadishu, has taken charge over government forces in Beletwein and was reportedly reorganizing the security situation after a deadly suicide bombing killed Security Minister Omar Hashi on June 18 among at least 25 other dead victims.

Some government forces have been gathered at El Gal military camp in the outskirts of Beletwein, the sources added.


A senior ICU security official said he has defected and joined Hizbul Islam rebels after accusing Somali government officials and lawmakers of "movements to return Ethiopian troops" back to Somalia.

Sheikh Ibrahim Yusuf, the top security commander in Beletwein under the ICU rule of Sheikh Ma'ow, declared that he has joined the opposition faction Hizbul Islam last Thursday.

He was backed by a number of loyal fighters and at least two armed trucks, sources said. Sheikh Omar Abu Hadi, the Hizbul Islam chief in Beletwein, said he welcomed Sheikh Ibrahim.

Sheikh Ma'ow, who has led the ICU fighters in Hiran for months, was reportedly called to Mogadishu where he is holding talks with high-level government officials and military commanders.

During the Ethiopian army's two-year military intervention in south-central Somalia, which ended in Jan. 2009, Beletwein had the third-largest concentration of Ethiopian troops deployed in Somalia after Mogadishu and Baidoa.

The town remains important for commercial activities and is located along the major north-south highway that transverses in the middle of Somalia.

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