Somalia is in “a state of war,” the country’s Islamic leader said Thursday, as his fighters battled U.N.-backed government troops for control of strategic villages despite an agreement by both sides to return to peace talks. At least 100 people have been killed.
The clashes threaten to spiral into a major conflict in this volatile region, sucking in Ethiopia and its bitter rival Eritrea. Analysts believe Ethiopia may soon raise the stakes by deploying attack helicopters in support of the government.
An Associated Press photographer saw 19 bodies of Islamic fighters in Moode Moode, a town nine miles from the government garrison town of Baidoa, where fighting took place Wednesday. Heavy artillery and mortar exchanges continued Thursday, a day after an EU envoy persuaded both sides to resume peace efforts.
Three Islamic fighters were captured. Aweys Hassan Ma’alim, 25, said he had been forced to fight by the Islamic movement. Another, Adan Abdullahi Mohammed, said he wanted to fight Ethiopians and “die for the sake of God in holy war.”
U.N. calls for calm
The United Nations appealed for calm, saying fighting would prevent aid from reaching hundreds of thousands in dire need of help because of hunger and flooding.
Heavy fighting erupted as the Islamic militia’s ultimatum for Ethiopian troops to leave the country expired. Three days of clashes between the Islamic fighters and government forces, newly trained by Ethiopian troops, have left more than 100 people dead.
Ethiopia denies its forces are fighting, but says it has deployed several hundred military trainers in support of the transitional government.
On Wednesday, Islamic leader Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys told an EU envoy he was willing to return to peace talks with the transitional government.
But on Thursday, he said, “The country is in a state of war.”
“All Somalis should take part in this struggle against Ethiopia,” he told The AP by telephone.
A spokesman for the Islamic movement, Sheikh Ibrahim Shukri Abuu-Zeynab, said it had captured Idale, a town 37 miles southwest of Baidoa and the scene of fighting Tuesday. He said 200 Ethiopian troops had been killed; the claim could not be verified.
‘Somalia is suffering’
Ethiopia’s government said the Islamic group was warmongering and not interested in peace. “Ethiopia has exerted efforts as it will do so for the peaceful resolution of the problem in Somalia,” a government statement said late Wednesday.
EU envoy Louis Michel, in response to a question about Eritrea and Ethiopia’s involvement, said Wednesday: “Somalia is suffering because some are using Somalia as a battlefield for other issues.”
Eritrea and Ethiopia fought an unresolved border war in 1998.
Somalia’s deputy defense minister, Salad Ali Jelle, told reporters 71 Islamic fighters had been killed and 221 wounded during clashes in three locations near military training camps around Baidoa. Three government troops were killed and seven wounded, Jelle said. The toll could not be independently verified.
Witnesses in the town of Bur Haqaba, which is controlled by the Islamic movement, reported hearing mortars, anti-aircraft missiles and rocket-propelled grenades Thursday.
EU envoy: Fighting likely will continue
After returning from Somalia late Wednesday, Michel said skirmishes were likely to continue for now, but said both sides had broadly agreed to ease tensions, and he believed they were committed to negotiations.
He said the talks would be in Khartoum, the Sudanese capital where several rounds have been held with little progress. No date was given.
The interim government holds only a small area around the central town of Baidoa. The Islamic militiamen control the capital, Mogadishu, and have fanned out across most of southern Somalia.
Somalia has not had an effective government since 1991.