BAIDOA, Somalia (Reuters) -- Ethiopian forces, committed to defending an interim Somali government holed up in the town of Baidoa, launched airstrikes on Sunday against Islamist fighters across the country, witnesses said.
Ethiopian Information Minister Berhan Hailu said the operation targeted several fronts including Dinsoor, Bandiradley and Baladwayne and the town of Buur Hakaba -- close to the administration's encircled south-central base Baidoa.
It was the first use of airstrikes and the first public admission by Ethiopia of its involvement in Somalia, whose interim government is surrounded by heavily armed fighters of the powerful Somalia Islamic Courts Council (SICC).
"After too much patience, the Ethiopian government has taken self-defensive measures and started counter-attacking the aggressive extremist forces of the Islamic Courts and foreign terrorist groups," Berhan told Reuters.
Diplomats fear Addis Ababa's announcement of its involvement in Somalia has flagged off a war ensnaring Horn of Africa rivals Ethiopia and Eritrea, and possibly attracting foreign jihadists and triggering suicide bombings in east Africa.
Berhan gave no details, but Somali witnesses reported Ethiopian planes dropping bombs and firing missiles on two areas as fighting between the Islamists and pro-government forces raged for a sixth day.
Resident Abdirashid Hassan said he saw planes drop bombs on the outskirts of Baladwayne, 190 miles (300 km) north of the capital Mogadishu.
Another witness, businessman Farah Osman, said two Ethiopian planes fired missiles further north, near Bandiradley.
A senior Islamist, Sheikh Mahmud Ibrahim Suley, accused the Ethiopians of using MiG warplanes and helicopters.
"Today the war is being fought by land and air," he told reporters in Mogadishu, adding that Islamists had destroyed five Ethiopian tanks. He did not comment on casualties.
Both sides say they have killed hundreds since the fighting began on Tuesday, although aid agencies report dozens of dead.
For months, witnesses have reported seeing thousands of Ethiopian troops deployed in Somalia to protect the government against the newly-powerful Islamists.
The SICC captured the capital Mogadishu and a swathe of southern Somalia in June, challenging the Western-backed government's aim to restore central rule for the first time since the 1991 ouster of a dictator.
Fighters loyal to both sides started firing shells, rockets and machine guns at each other shortly after dawn on Sunday, witnesses said, in battles that spread to four fronts.
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 previously admitted to having a few hundred military trainers in Baidoa.
"Fighting is going on from one part of the country to the other. The Islamic Courts have ignited the war they promised yesterday," Information Minister Ali Ahmed Jama "Jangali" told Reuters. "They will lose in this fighting."
An Islamist fighter speaking from close to the semi-autonomous Puntland region, home of interim President Abdullahi Yusuf, said: "Now there is a full-blown war."
Fighting was reported near Daynunay, the government's forward military base about 20 km (12 miles) southeast of Baidoa. Battles also broke out in Manas, west of Baidoa, Kalaber to the north and Bandiradley, close to the border with Puntland with many people fleeing.
Witnesses reported an unmarked C-130 circling above Galkaayo, close to Puntland.
In Mogadishu, sombre-faced groups of men gathered to listen to radio news broadcasts and some made calls to relatives in the battle zones.
Late on Friday, a van with loudspeakers patrolled the streets of the war-scarred city asking residents and shopkeepers to contribute to the "jihad" efforts.
Several radio stations aired patriotic songs, urging Somalis to defend their country, some dating from the 1977-78 Ogaden war, fought against a backdrop of shifting Cold War alliances.
During that war, Ethiopia's army crushed Somali troops who tried to lay claim to the ethnically Somali Ogaden region.
War saxaafaddeed- Somali Concern Group
Somali Concern Group (SCG) waxay aad uga xuntahay xaaladda dagaal ee dalka ka soo cusboonaatay. Waxaan aad uga tiiraanyeesnahay tirada dadka Somaliyed ee ku la’day labada dhinacba. Waxaan aad uga walaacsanahay khasaaraha uu dagaalka u geysanayo nolosha dadka Somaliyed, wax soo saarkooda iyo deegaankaba. Waxaan aad uga shaki qabnaa in dagaalkani lagu guuleysan karo, balse uu noqon doono mid daba-dheeraada oo dalka iyo dadkiisaba halaag u horseeda. Waxaa kaloon aad uga xunahay faragelinta shisheeye, gaar ahaan waddamada deriska ah, oo sii horineysa dagaalka iyadoo burbur mooye aan natiijo wax ku ool ah laga fileyn.
Annagoo ka damqaneyna khasaaraha uu dagaalka u geystay dadka Somaliyed ee deggen degaannada lagu dagaalamayo; annagoo ka cabsi qabna in dagaalku ku baaho gobollo kale; annagoo walaac weyn ka qabna in dagaalku uu noqdo mid caalami ah oo ku fida gobolka Geeska Afrika; annagoo dareensan in khasaaraha ugu weyn uu ku dhacayo dadka Somaliyed ee 16 sano colaadda sokeeye ku socotay, ayaa waxaan u soo jeedineynaa mas’uuliyiinta labada dhinac in caqligu shaqeeyo oo SI SHURUUD LA’AAN AH DAGAALKA LOO JOOJIYO. Waxaa kaloon tacsi u direynaa dhammaan ummadda Somaliyed, gaar ahaana ehelada dadka Somaliyed ee ku waxyeeloobay dagaallada.
Waxaan beesha caalamka oo ay ugu horreyaan IGAD, Jaamacadda Carabta, Midowga Afrika, Qaramada Midoobay, Midowga Yurub, Ururka Islaamka iyo dowladda Mareykanka ka codsaneynaa in ay gacan ka geystaan sidii dagaalkan ujeedooyinkiisa aanay caddeyn loo joojin lahaa. Waxaa kaloon dhammaan ummadda Somaliyed ee nabadda jecel, gaar ahaan ururada bulshada rayidka ah, ugu baaqeynaa in ay kaalin muhiim ah ka qaataan sidii dagaalka loo soo afjari lahaa.
Ugu dambeyntii waxaan dowladda ku-meel gaarka ah iyo Midowga Maxkamadaha ugu baaqeynaa in ay SI SHURUUD LA’AAN AH dib ugu soo laabtaan miiska wada hadallada si loo soo afjaro colaadatan daba dheeraatay loona dhiso dowlad loo dhanyahay oo ay ummadda Somaliyed leedahay.
Haddaba, si colaadda loo soo afjaro loona suurto geliya dib u furidda wada hadallada, waxaan ku talineynaa sidatan:
1) In marka hore SI SHURUUD LA’AAN AH xabadda loo joojiyo, ciidamadana la kala qaado si loo baajiyo isku dhac dambe oo dhasha.
2) In wixii ciidamo ajnabi ah, Itoobiyaan, Eretariyaan, Yugaandheys iyo cid kaleba ay si shuruud la’aan ah uga baxaan Somaliya. Waayo, joogitaankooda wuxuu si hurinayaa colaadda.
3) In SI SHURUUD LA’AAN AH ay dowladda Itoobiya ciidamadeeda dagaalka ku jira ugala baxdo, joojisana faragelinta ay ku hayso arrimaha Somaliya. Joogitaanka ciidamada Itoobiya waxay xadgudub ku yihiin qaraarka Qaramaha Midowbay ee cunaqabateynta hubka.
4) In wada hadalladii Khartuum dib loo furo si loo soo afjaro colaadda loona gaaro isfaham iyo dhismo dowlad Somaliyeed oo loo dhanyahay.
5) In labada dhinac ay danta dadkooda iyo dalkooda ka hormariyaan danta gaarka ah ama danaha dowlado shisheeye oo ka soo horjeeda danaha ummadda Somaliyed.
6) In bulshada caalamka ay gacan ka geystaan sidii dagaalka loo soo afjari lahaa ka gadaalna labada dhinac mar labaad loo soo fariisin lahaa miiska wada hadallada si loo gaaro heshiis guud iyo nabad waarta.
7) In bulshada Somaliyed ay kaalin muhiim ah ka qaataan sidii dagaalka loo dhammeyn lahaa labada dhinacna miiska nabadda loo soo fariisin lahaa si colaadda sokeeye loo soo afjaro.
Somali Concern Group (SCG) waxay dhammaan ummadda Somaliyed ku boorineysaa in ay kaalin waxtar leh ka ka qaataan joojinta colaadaha iyo sidii nabad waarta loo heli lahaa. Waxaan mar kale madaxda labada dhinac ugu baaqeynaa in ay tixgeliyaan rabitaanka shacabka ay matalaan oo ay nabad colaad ka doortaan. Waxaan rajeyneynaa in caqligu shaqeeyo: Xusuusta ereyadan xikmadda xambaarsan: Markaan tabar hayey talo ma hayn, maantoo aan talo hayana tabar mahayo! NABAD KA DOOR BIDA COLAAD. NABADDA HA LA DOONO.
Mohamud M Gure -Guddoomiyaha ururka Somali Concern Group (SCG)