MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP) - Hundreds have been killed in clashes between Somalia's Islamic militia and the country's secular government, officials said Friday, while the United Nations issued a call for peace during a lull in fighting.
Sporadic gunfire and shelling could be heard around Baidoa, the UN-backed government's only stronghold, but residents and officials said the worst of the current fighting appeared to be over.
Thousands of Somalis have fled their homes as troops loyal to the two-year-old interim administration fought Islamic fighters who had advanced on Baidoa, about 225 kilometres northwest of the capital of Mogadishu. Islamic militiamen control Mogadishu along with most of southern Somalia.
Islamic forces have declared they want to bring the whole country under their rule and vowed to continue attacks to drive out troops from neighbouring Ethiopia, a largely Christian country that is providing military support.
"We will now start our real attack against the invaders and would not stop until we force the Ethiopians out of our country," Sheik Ibrahim Shukri Abuu-Zeynab, a spokesman for the Islamic movement, told reporters in Mogadishu.
Late Friday, Ethiopia accused the Islamic movement of "massive infiltration" across the border into Ethiopia.
"The situation in Somalia has turned from bad to worse," the statement said. "Ethiopia has been patient so far but their is a limit to this."
In Kismayo, a strategic seaport captured from the government by Islamic militia in September, several foreign Arab fighters were seen by residents unloading from ships.
Government officials said more than 600 Islamic fighters had been killed during four days of clashes. Islamic militia said they had killed around 400 Ethiopians and government fighters. Neither claim could be independently confirmed.
The UN issued a statement in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, on Friday calling for an "immediate end" to the conflict. It accused both sides of using increasing numbers of child soldiers. "This conflict will push the children of Somalia into further dire crisis," the UN said.
Samir Hosni, the Arab League's special envoy to Somalia, told a London-based Arab newspaper that he expected peace talks to resume in January.
It was unclear how long the guns would remain quiet, as earlier Friday four Ethiopian attack helicopters and about 20 tanks headed for battle, witnesses and a government official said.
The increasingly violent clashes and deployment of attack helicopters could mean a major conflict in this volatile region. Ethiopia, which has one of the largest armies in the region, and its bitter rival, Eritrea, could use Somalia as the ground for a proxy war. While Ethiopia backs the internationally recognized government, Eritrea backs the Islamic movement.
Bodies lay in the streets of villages where attacks had taken place Thursday night, and families began to abandon their homes, crops and livestock, fearing worsening fighting. Hundreds of people in areas held by the Islamic forces also were fleeing south to Mogadishu.
"I think we have lost hundreds of our animals in the fighting, most of them were caught in the crossfire," said Malable Aden, who reached Mogadishu by car. "We were supposed to reap our harvest of this season, but unfortunately we were forced to leave them behind for the pigs and birds to destroy them."
Somalia has not had an effective government since warlords overthrew longtime dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991, plunging the country into chaos.
Ethiopian tanks move into battle with Somalia Islamists
BAIDOA, Somalia (AFP) - Ethiopia moved tanks and other reinforcements into the battle zone for a third day of fighting against Islamist forces in southern Somalia, witnesses said, while the Islamists vowed an all-out war.
As the clashes intensified on twin fronts, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said that fighting had left "dozens" dead and left many homeless.
But the government said its Ethiopian-backed forces had killed more than 500 Islamist fighters ince Wednesday when violence erupted near the government-held town of Baidoa.
"We are very concerned about the plight of civilians who might get caught up in the fighting," said Pascal Hundt, the ICRC's chief for Somalia.
"We call on all parties involved in the clashes to spare and protect civilians and to take every precaution when conducting military operations," he said in a statement.
The ICRC urged rival sides "to ensure that wounded and captured fighters are protected and receive treatment and that medical staff, hospitals and clinics are spared from attacks."
Hospitals and clinics in the region had admitted at least 200 wounded since Wednesday, the ICRC said.
Somali Information Minister Ali Jama said fatalities were reported on two fronts east and south of the Baidoa, about 250 kilometres (155 miles) northwest of the capital Mogadishu.
"The combined total from two fronts is over 500 Islamists killed since Wednesday," Jama told AFP.
The figure could not be independently verified.
"Most of those killed are innocent children who have been sent to the frontline. It is unfortunate because we have been forced into this ... we do not like shedding the blood of children," Jama added.
Fighting erupted early Wednesday, hours after the expiry of an Islamist-imposed ultimatum for thousands of Ethiopian troops the Islamists say have been deployed to back the government.
"Our Mujahideen are ready to defend themselves from the invading enemies," Islamic commander Hassan Bullow told AFP.
"This war is a religious obligation and we are here to fight for our religion against the enemies until we die."
Ethiopia is supporting Somalia's weakened government against the Islamist forces, which control the capital Mogadishu and much of the rest of the war-ravaged Horn of Africa nation.
The two sides traded heavy shellfire on Friday east and south of Baidoa, the government said.
"The fighting is continuing heavily on both fronts," Jama told AFP.
"Much fighting is taking place, mainly in Idale and Dinsoor," he added, referring to outposts about 60 kilometres (40 miles) and 120 kilometres south of Baidoa.
In central Somalia, residents said Ethiopian military trucks headed to Sadehigle, outside the Muslim-held town of Bandiradley, about 630 kilometers (400 miles) north of Mogadishu, sparking fears of possible clashes.
Witnesses said Ethiopian tanks traveled overnight to Daynunay, a flashpoint garrison town about 30 kilometres to the east of Baidoa, where shelling was reported.
Clashes erupted on Wednesday, a day after the expiry of a deadline issued by the Islamists for Ethiopian troops to pull out.
The Islamists have complained about the silence of the Arab League and African Union over the dispute.
"Why are they ignoring what is taking place in the ground?" asked Sheikh Mohamoud Ibrahim Sulley, a leading Islamist official.
"The world is silent today while Ethiopian forces are killing us inside our country, but tomorrow when we defeat them and chase them things will be changed, we will inter their territories and at that moment the world will shout," Sulley warned.
The fighting and war of words have come despite a statement by European Commission humanitarian chief Louis Michel on Wednesday that he had secured the commitment of both sides to observe a truce and resume peace talks.
Arab League-mediated talks in Khartoum collapsed in November when Islamists refused to negotiate until Ethiopia withdraws its troops.