updated 12/23/2006 6:53:05 AM ET 2006-12-23T11:53:05

Somali Islamists urged foreign Muslim fighters on Saturday to join their “holy war” against Ethiopia after days of heavy fighting between Islamist and pro-government troops.

The Islamists and pro-Somali government fighters have been firing artillery and rockets at each other across frontlines since Tuesday, killing dozens and wounding hundreds. Though residents reported a lull in fighting early on Saturday.

“Our country is open to Muslims worldwide. Let them fight in Somalia and wage jihad, and God willing, attack Addis Ababa,” said Islamisti defense chief Yusuf Mohamed Siad “Inda’ade”, a hard-liner known for his belligerent rhetoric.

“We told the world to stop this problem. We told them to do something before it becomes a blazing fire that would engulf the region,” he told reporters in the Islamist stronghold of Mogadishu.

The most sustained fighting to date between the two sides has heightened fears of a major regional war that would suck in Horn of Africa rivals Ethiopia and Eritrea.

Diplomats fear the Somali conflict could also trigger suicide bombings in east Africa.

Ethiopia poured scorn on the Islamists’ call for international support from foreign jihadists, saying it proved the “extremism” of a movement Addis Ababa accuses of being run by militants linked to al-Qaida.

“If wishes were horses, the extremists in the Islamic Courts Union would have attacked Addis Ababa by now,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Ambassador Solomon Abede told Reuters.

“Their declaration appealing to foreign Muslim fighters to help in war against Ethiopia proves their extremist behavior.”

Appeals for peace
Residents reported quiet across the two main fronts near the government’s encircled base at Baidoa early Saturday. The Islamists said they took over Tiyeglow late on Friday, meeting no resistance in the town some 45 miles southwest of Baidoa.

The Islamists took power in Mogadishu and across a swathe of southern Somalia in June, challenging the Western-backed interim government’s aspiration to restore central rule for the first time since a military dictator was toppled in 1991.

This week’s combat started after Tuesday’s expiry of a deadline the Somalia Islamic Courts Council (SICC) had given Ethiopian troops protecting the government to leave the country or face war.

The African Union added its voice on Saturday to U.N. and Western condemnation of the fighting and urged both sides to resume peace talks.

The SICC accuses Christian-led Ethiopia, a U.S. ally in its war on terrorism, of invading Somalia and has said it would wage holy war against the dominant Horn of Africa power.

Washington says the Islamists are led by an al-Qaida cell, which the military-religious movement denies.

Al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden has publicly encouraged jihadists to join such a war.

Military experts estimate Ethiopia has 15,000-20,000 troops in Somalia, while Eritrea has about 2,000 behind the Islamists.

Asmara denies the accusation, while Addis Ababa admits only having a few hundred military trainers in Baidoa.

Copyright 2012 Thomson Reuters. Click for restrictions.

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