The New York Times has already hinted that Ethiopia's "Christian-led government" and its military operations inside Somalia have "tacit American support".
Both U.S. support and the Christian-Muslim religious equation could threaten a regionalization of the conflict. The Times said the Islamic forces in the capital of Mogadishu have been joined by Muslim mercenaries from Yemen, Egypt, Syria and Libya.
The United States, which is already fighting a losing battle in Iraq and Afghanistan, may find itself indirectly involved in a third battle front, this time in Africa.
But while Annan will have his hands full trying to bring peace between Ethiopia and Somalia in his last few days in office, he is also rejoicing over a dramatic new political development in Sudan.
In Khartoum, an intransigent government has finally agreed to permit the first group of UN police advisers and military officers to be deployed in the strife-torn Darfur region.
A UN spokesman said the agreement reached between the Sudanese government and the African Union (AU) over the weekend paves the way for the eventual deployment of thousands of UN peacekeepers in Darfur, "where more than 200,000 people have been killed and two million others forced to flee their homes over the past three years."
Annan, who was expected to take a break while packing his bags for a vacation in early January, was on the phone Tuesday trying to defuse the rising tension in the Horn of Africa.
The outgoing secretary-general spoke with President Mwai Kibaki of Kenya, who has been indirectly dealing with the situation in Somalia, as well as with Prime Minister Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia and the European Commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Aid, Louis Michel, who had recently visited Somalia.
The conflict in Somalia was triggered by a long simmering dispute between Somalia's transitional government based in Baidoa and an Islamic force based in the capital of Mogadishu.
The United States has been providing support to the transitional government on the ground that the Islamic force has ties to al Qaeda.
The Ethiopian government, which has been backing the transitional government, decided to attack Mogadishu over the weekend threatening a full-scale war. On Monday, Ethiopian fighter planes are said to have attacked the Mogadishu airport, escalating the military tension in the region.
The 15-member UN Security Council is expected to meet later this week to review the ongoing conflict. The Council is to be briefed by the Secretary-General's Special Representative for Somalia, Francois Lonseny Fall.
The fighting is also threatening to set off a humanitarian crisis caused by the displacement of thousands of civilians in central and southern Somalia.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, said Tuesday that Somalia has been affected over the past several months by one crisis after another.
Early in the year it was drought, he said. That was followed by internal conflict that sent more than 34,000 refugees to camps in Dadaab, Kenya.
"Then, since November, we've seen heavy flooding over a wide area of southern Somalia, and now over the past week, extremely serious fighting," he said in a statement released here.
"I appeal to all sides in this conflict to respect humanitarian principles and protect civilian populations," he continued.
He also said that relief workers in the region are already struggling to contend with huge obstacles, including security and natural disasters. "The last thing we and the people of Somalia need is yet another round of massive displacement."
Since the weekend, the UN's World Food Program (WFP) has been dropping food into Somalia and Kenya, and expanding its land, water and air campaign, to help more than a million people suffering because of floods cutting off roads and spreading sickness..
But WFP said that it urgently needs $6.7 million for its estimated 16.6-million-dollar special operation to deliver food and other humanitarian aid by airlift, airdrops and helicopter.
Meanwhile, the UN Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) said that 24 police advisers and 43 staff officers will be deployed in Darfur in the next few days.
Under an initial 21-million-dollar support package to the African Union, UNMIS will provide 105 military advisers, 33 police officers and 48 civilian staff, as well as equipment.
This initial package, according to UNMIS, is the first part of a three-phase process that is expected to culminate in a hybrid UN-AU peacekeeping force in Darfur, made up of 17,000 troops and 3,000 police officers.
The current AMIS force, consisting of African troops, has a strength of just 7,000 soldiers to monitor an area roughly the size of France.
The United Nations has estimated that nearly four million people in Darfur now depend on outside humanitarian aid as a result of having to flee their homes and land to escape the devastation caused by fighting between government forces, allied militias and rebel groups seeking greater autonomy.
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Albion Monitor December
27, 2006 (http://www.albionmonitor.com)
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