UNITED NATIONS – Hoping to head off a regional proxy war, the U.N. Security Council came to the aid of Somalia's virtually powerless government, authorizing hundreds of East African troops to train and protect the interim administration in its conflict with an Islamic militia.
A spokesman for the Islamic fighters, who have taken control of the capital and most of southern Somalia, said Thursday that the U.N. resolution will heighten tensions and lead to more killing.
Peace talks slated for later this month also appear unlikely, with the Islamic group saying it will now have to reconsider joining any such dialogue with the Somali government.
The Security Council resolution Wednesday, co-sponsored by the U.S. and the council's African members, partially lifts an arms embargo on Somalia so the regional force can be supplied with weapons and military equipment and train the government's security forces.
The resolution urges the Islamic Courts movement to stop any further military expansion and join the peace talks, and threatens unspecified Security Council action against those who block peace efforts or attempt to overthrow the government.
A spokesman for the Islamic movement said that the resolution will introduce sophisticated weapons into Somalia and provoke a war between his group and Somalia's struggling government.
"We see the approval of the resolution as nothing but an evil intention," Abdirahin Ali Mudey, spokesman for the Islamic Courts, told The Associated Press.
Mudey also accused the Security Council of giving the Somali government's main ally, Ethiopia, permission to occupy the country.
"The international community has proven to be biased and unjust," he said.
The arms embargo against Somalia was imposed in 1992, a year after warlords overthrew dictator Mohamed Siad Barre and then turned on one another. An interim government was formed two years ago with the help of the U.N., but it has struggled to assert its authority against the Islamic militants.
Critics of the resolution, including some non-governmental organizations, accuse the Security Council of taking sides in the dispute between the government and the Islamic movement.
But there are fears that, without international action, Somalia could become a proxy battleground for Ethiopia and Eritrea, which fought a border war in 1998-2000.
Somalia's deputy U.N. ambassador, Idd Bedel Mohamed, thanked the U.S. for taking the initiative to deploy a force.
"The primary purpose of this resolution is to support the legitimate government in Somalia so it can stabilize the situation in that country," he told reporters after the vote.
He said the Somali government is willing to negotiate with the Islamic Courts movement, which takes its name from a system of local religious courts, if it gives up its mission to take over the country and ensures that Somalia does not become a haven for terrorists.
The U.S. has accused the movement of harboring al-Qaida suspects.
A confidential U.N. report obtained recently by The Associated Press said 6,000-8,000 Ethiopian troops were in Somalia or along the border, supporting the transitional government. It also said 2,000 soldiers from Eritrea were inside Somalia, supporting the Islamic militia — which Eritrea denies. Mohamed insisted only a small number of Ethiopians are training its security forces.
The resolution authorizes a seven-nation East African group known as the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, or IGAD, and the African Union to establish "a protection and training mission in Somalia" for an initial period of six months.
The resolution bans Somalia's neighbors from sending soldiers, which would prohibit participation in the force by troops from Ethiopia, Djibouti and Kenya. Uganda is the only country thus far to volunteer troops.
Council diplomats said IGAD envisions a force of eight battalions, each with 700 to 800 troops, but only two would be deployed in the first phase.
The U.N. last authorized peacekeepers to enter Somalia in December 1992, with the U.S. leading an international force to help feed famine victims in the midst of widespread violence between warlords.
By 1993 the mission evolved into disarming factions hindering relief efforts, including a search for Gen. Mohamed Farrah Aidid, a leading warlord. On Oct. 3, an urban battle with Aidid's forces killed 18 U.S. soldiers and wounded 84.
Public outrage over the troops' violent deaths — fed by televised pictures of the bodies of American soldiers being dragged through the streets of Somalia's capital Mogadishu — generated enough political pressure for President Clinton to order all troops to withdraw by March 31, 1994.