Eritrea brushed off a U.S threat of sanctions Friday and said Washington is exacerbating the conflict in neighboring Somalia by providing the country's government with tons of weapons and training.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Thursday accused Eritrea, a tiny nation on the Red Sea, of aiding a Somali extremist group she says is trying to launch worldwide terrorist attacks from Somalia.
"That's totally untrue, baseless," Eritrea's information minister, Ali Abdu, told The Associated Press when asked if his country is arming Somalia's al-Shabab insurgent group, which has alleged ties to al-Qaida.
Eritrea has repeatedly denied it is supporting extremists in Somalia despite reports from U.N. investigators that document such arms shipments. But it has made clear its disdain for Somalia's transitional government, which is backed by the United Nations, the United States, the African Union and Eritrea's longtime enemy — Ethiopia.
Many experts believe Eritrea and Ethiopia are fighting a proxy war in Somalia, with Eritrea arming rebels who want to impose a strict version of sharia law across the country. Eritrea and Ethiopia have been feuding over their border since Eritrea gained independence in 1993 after a 30-year guerrilla war.
Clinton warned Eritrea that it would face penalties if it continues to supply the group with arms and funding.
"It is long past time for Eritrea to cease and desist its support for al-Shabab," she said Thursday in Kenya, during a seven-nation tour of Africa this week. "We are making it very clear that their actions are unacceptable. We intend to take action if they do not cease." She did not specify what kind of sanctions the administration might impose.
She also said the Obama administration would boost military supplies and other aid to the Somali government and an African peacekeeping force supporting it. Although Clinton did not discuss the new assistance, other U.S. officials have said the administration plans to double an initial 40 tons of arms sent to Somalia through other African nations.
Abdu denounced the program and said Somalis should "decide their own destiny and future."
"You can't solve the Somali issue by sending weapons, and I'm sure the 40 tons of weapons will produce only hatred," Abdu said in a telephone interview from Asmara, the Eritrean capital.
U.S. involvement in Somalia is a sensitive subject because of the 1992-94 American military intervention that began as a humanitarian mission to deliver aid supplies to Somalia.
That ended in a humiliating withdrawal months after the 1993 "Black Hawk Down" incident in which two U.S. helicopters were downed and 18 servicemen killed.
Somalia has not had an effective government since 1991 when warlords overthrew longtime dictator Mohamed Siad Barre and then turned on each other, plunging the country into chaos and anarchy.
Somali insurgents control much of Somalia, with rebel fighters operating openly in the capital in their quest to implement a strict form of Islam in the country.
Government troops and African Union peacekeepers only hold a few blocks of Mogadishu, but they still control key government buildings as well as the port and airport, allowing them to receive arms shipments.
Source: The Associated Press