Somali government troops backed by Ethiopians captured a southern town near the Kenyan border and prepared Friday to launch a major assault on the last stronghold of Islamic movement militiamen.
U.S. Navy warships patrolled off the Somali coast to prevent militiamen from escaping by sea.
Col. Barre "Hirale" Aden Shire, defense minister in the U.N.-backed transitional government, said Islamic militiamen were dug in with their backs to the sea at Ras Kamboni at the southernmost tip of Somalia.
"Today we will launch a massive assault on the Islamic courts militias. We will use infantry troops and fighter jets," said Shire, who left for the battle zone Friday. "They have dug huge trenches around Ras Kamboni but have only two options: to drown in the sea or to fight and die."
Somalia's history with foreign intervention has been dark. It raise tense memories for the U.S. military of the 1993 Mogadishu battle with Somali militias in which 18 Army Rangers died, an event depicted in the book and film "Black Hawk Down."
The battle, which took place during President Clinton's administration, was an attempt to stabilize the lawless nation, which has been without an effective central government since the 1991 ousting of President Siad Barre. The fighting left more than 1,000 Somali militiamen dead.
Barre, a military dictator, was overthrown when clan-based warlords ousted him and then turned on each other. The current government was formed two years ago with U.N. help, but has been weakened by internal rifts.
A U.N. peacekeeping force, including U.S. troops, arrived in 1992. The next year, fighters loyal to clan leader Mohamed Farah Aideed shot down two Army Black Hawk helicopters and battled American troops, killing 18 servicemen. The U.S. pulled out soon afterward, and the U.N. scaled down.
A few hundred Marines remained off the coast. Pentagon officials have repeatedly said the U.S. military is not assisting or advising Ethiopian or Somali forces, and that the U.S. Navy said British-led coalition ships have been parked off the east coast of Africa to "show a presence."
Somali government and Ethiopian troops routed the Council of Islamic Courts militia last week, driving them out of the capital and their strongholds in southern Somalia.
Message from al-Qaida
Al-Qaida's deputy leader urged Somalia's Islamic militia to attack troops from Ethiopia, which has a large Christian population, according to Internet audio posted Friday.
"I speak to you today as the crusader Ethiopian invasion forces violate the soil of the beloved Muslim Somalia — launch ambushes, land mines, raids and suicidal combats until you consume them as the lions and eat their prey," .
The message could not immediately be verified but was aired on a Web site frequently used by militants and carried the logo of al-Qaida's media production wing, al-Sahab.
Three al-Qaida suspects wanted in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa are believed to be leaders of the Islamic movement in Somalia. The movement's leaders deny having any links to terror network.
A meeting in Kenya of U.S., EU, African and Arab diplomats on Somalia ended Friday with a U.S. pledge to provide $40 million to Somalia in political, humanitarian and peacekeeping assistance, and a plan to ask more African nations to provide troops to help stabilize the country.
The European Union said it would also help pay for a peacekeeping force envisioned at 8,000 troops. The international support for peacekeepers was implicitly tied to political dialogue, with the Somali government pressed to talk with all segments of society to stop 15 years of chaos.
Somali Foreign Minister Ismael Mohamoud Hurreh, said his government already is based on reconciliation and plans no special effort to talk to political opponents and critics.
Ethiopian soldiers, tanks and warplanes intervened in Somalia on Dec. 24 to defeat an Islamic movement that threatened to overthrow the internationally recognized government, which at the time controlled only one town. But Ethiopia's government wants to pull out in a few weeks, saying its forces cannot be peacekeepers and it cannot afford for them stay.
The Islamic movement has vowed to launch an Iraq-style guerrilla war, raising the prospect of bloody reprisals against foreign peacekeepers. Somalia's interior minister said Thursday that 3,500 Islamic fighters were still hiding in the capital.
Kenya closed its border amid fears militants would slip across the frontier. The United Nations said thousands of refugees were also near the border, unable to seek safety in Kenya.
Residents of Mogadishu, Somalia's ruined seaside capital, have been on edge since the government took over. The city is still teeming with weapons, and some of the feared warlords of the past have returned to the city with their guns.
Since January 2005, the seven-nation Intergovernmental Authority on Development has offered to send a peacekeeping mission to Somalia, but it has not materialized because of a 1992 arms embargo on Somalia. The U.N. Security Council partially lifted the arms embargo in December to allow such a mission.
There have also been divisions within Somalia's transitional government and parliament over such a move and, when the Islamic movement controlled Mogadishu, there were demonstrations against any foreign peacekeepers.
Weapons readily available
The ease with which Somalis can get weapons is a major problem. Thursday was Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi's deadline for residents to voluntarily give up their arms, but only a handful were seen doing so. Gedi said the disarmament program was working.
Gedi swore into the army on Friday thousands of soldiers who served under Siad Barre's regime. Most were well over 50, wore old uniforms and carried no weapons.
Hassan Hashi Mohamed, 60, said he saved his camouflage uniform for 16 years.
"They called on us from the radio, so we came here," he said from a former base in Mogadishu, where the troops had gathered. "We are old now, but we will get some young men, too."