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Ethiopia Edgy Over Violent Islamic Militancy Seeping In


The milk-white plastic sheets hanging in the entrance of the Ghion Hotel seem innocuous, but the destruction they obscure isn't.

Inside, the bar of one of Addis Ababa's leading hotels lies in charred ruins, slivers of glass hanging from the windows and blasted furniture on the floor.

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A bomb that exploded there earlier this year took four lives and injured more than a dozen people. It was one of a series of attacks on Ethiopian hotels, another guerrilla action by suspected Islamic fundamentalists in this country and next-door Eritrea.

Perhaps 100 people have died in low-level guerrilla struggles in the two countries over the past two years. The guerrillas, too few to overthrow the government, aim to disrupt life and call attention to their cause of Islamic fundamentalism. It is small stuff compared with the rebel wars in next-door Sudan or clan fighting in neighboring Somalia.

But with violent fundamentalism on the rise in the region and worldwide, the strikes are increasingly putting on edge officials who are concerned about terrorism seeping across porous borders. "It is the leading preoccupation of the Ethiopian government. The government constantly worries about what they might do," said a Western diplomat here.

This modern fundamentalist threat follows a long history of ambivalence toward the outside Arab world. Ethiopia and Eritrea were invaded continually during the last millennium, first by Islamic armies on religious crusades, then during the Muslim expansion during the 12th century and the 16th-century expansions of the Turkish Ottoman Empire.

The biggest suspected culprit behind the modern-day guerrilla actions is regional bully, Sudan, which has given asylum to rebels from other countries and allegedly supports them in its drive to impose its Islamic revolution in the Horn of Africa and beyond.

Poorly policed borders between Sudan and its neighbors Eritrea and Ethiopia - and between Ethiopia and Somalia - make it easy to sneak in weapons. Diplomats say Libya and Iran have also used this route for smuggling.

The most striking action in the region so far was the aborted assassination attempt on Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Addis last June. Sudan's government has snubbed Ethiopia's demand for the extradition of three men in connection with the incident. The attempted murder on their own turf was a blow to the pride of Ethiopia and a turning point in its soured relations with Sudan.

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Further worrying the Ethiopian government were the killing of a top Ethiopian military official and a string of bombings of state-run hotels earlier this year.

On March 6, the Islamic fundamentalist Al-Itihad Al-Islam (the Islamic Union) in Somalia claimed responsibility for the bombings of the Ras and Ghion hotels in Addis and for killing Gen. Hayelom Araya, head of operations of Ethiopia's Defense Ministry on Feb. 14.

Diplomats say it is possible the perpetrators were actually backed by Sudan instead of Somalia. Or that the attackers could have come from one of several Islamic Ethiopian groups allegedly involved in a low-level insurgency in the country's eastern Oromo and Somali regions.

Land mines planted by suspected Islamic separatists were responsible for the deaths and injuries of several relief workers in a district near the border with Somalia early last year.

"Every suspicion turned to Sudan. But who knows?" says a Western diplomat.

ERITREA, which in 1993 became independent from Ethiopia after a 30-year struggle, is obsessed with threats to its new-found sovereignty. As the only country on the Red Sea, other than Israel, that is not majority Muslim, it is sensitive to imported Islamic militancy and repeatedly issues hostile statements against Sudan's regime.

During the independence struggle, the main rebel group, the Christian-dominated Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF), stymied a rival Islamic rebel group, the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF).

Now the EPLF has been reborn as the ruling People's Front for Democracy and Justice. Disaffected former ELF fighters living in Sudan have planted land mines and burned down schools and clinics in remote areas of Eritrea, killing scores of people over the past 30 months.

Last month, a British woman working for a French nongovernmental agency and several agriculture ministry officials were injured in a land-mine explosion.

The government tends to play down the threat, insisting there is little homegrown support for the attackers. But Eritrean Deputy Foreign Minister Saleh Idris Kekia is tightening security.

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