Islamic fighters ambushed an Ethiopian military convoy Sunday, eyewitnesses said, in the first skirmish between the rival forces maneuvering for control in Somalia.
Two Ethiopian trucks were destroyed by land mines before Islamic fighters opened fire on the convoy, which eyewitnesses told The Associated Press was made up of more than 80 vehicles and headed for the Somali government town of Baidoa, 150 miles west of the capital, Mogadishu.
There were no immediate reports of casualties from the fighting.
Government officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media confirmed a skirmish had taken place but said they had no details.
Islamic and Ethiopian officials were not immediately available for comment.
The attack occurred near the town of Bardaleh, 50 miles southwest of Baidoa.
"There were two explosions and then a large exchange of gunfire," said one eyewitness on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals. Around 50 Islamic fighters were involved, the eyewitness added. "We saw Ethiopian soldiers in defensive positions and two trucks overturned."
Fears of all-out war
Several hours after the skirmish, the Ethiopian convoy arrived in Baidoa, eyewitnesses said. Large numbers of Ethiopian infantry were aboard buses as the convoy pulled into town, witnesses said.
There has been heightened tensions in Somalia and fears that an all-out war could engulf the region. Ethiopia backs the transitional government, whose authority has been severely challenged by an Islamic movement that has taken over the capital and much of southern Somalia since June.
Somalia has not had an effective government since 1991, when warlords overthrew dictator Mohamed Siad Barre and then turned on one another. The interim government was formed with the help of the United Nations two years ago, but it controls just one town.
Experts have warned that the country has become a proxy battleground for Somalia's neighbors, Eritrea and Ethiopia.
A confidential U.N. report obtained last month by the AP said 6,000-8,000 Ethiopian troops are in or near Somalia's border with Ethiopia, backing the interim government. The report also said 2,000 troops from Eritrea are inside Somalia supporting the Islamic movement.
On Nov. 2, the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi issued a warning saying Somali extremists were threatening suicide attacks in Kenya and Ethiopia. Somalia's Islamic militia denied they planned any such attacks.
A U.N. panel charged with monitoring the 1992 arms embargo on Somalia said in a report obtained Wednesday by the AP that 10 countries, including Ethiopia and Eritrea, had provided weapons, money and training to armed groups in Somalia.
‘We do have reliable information’
The four-member panel based their report on their own investigations, interviews and material supplied by embassies in Nairobi. Several of the countries have denied the allegations.
The U.S. ambassador in Kenya, Michael Ranneberger, said Saturday there was ample information that foreign countries were providing weapons to Somalia. He would not comment specifically on the U.N. report, although he said it was "generally known Eritrea is involved."
"We do have reliable information that arms are flowing into Somalia from a number of different sources," Ranneberger told the AP in Kapenguria, Kenya.
Eritrea's information minister, Ali Abdu, said Saturday the allegations were "absurd."
Somalia's Islamic movement, meanwhile, lifted a curfew Sunday imposed after demonstrations against a ban on the popular stimulant "khat," a leaf chewed across the Horn of Africa and the Middle East.
The 9 p.m. to 4 a.m. curfew was the first in Mogadishu since the collapse of the last effective national government 15 years ago. It was imposed Thursday.