Islamist militia leaders in Somalia say government troops have taken control of a town near the government base of Baidoa that had been held by militias loyal to the rival Islamic Courts Union.
Islamic leader Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed speaks during a news conference, Monday, Oct. 9, 2006 in the Somali capital Mogadishu
The town of Burahakaba is located on the road that runs from the capital, Mogadishu, which the Islamic Courts Union controls, to Baidoa, the current seat of the internationally backed transitional government.
According to media reports, citing eyewitnesses, Somali interim government forces, backed by what media reports said were Ethiopian troops, overran the town, forcing fighters from the Islamic Courts Union to flee.
Ethiopia has repeatedly denied any troop presence in Somalia.
Somali Foreign Affairs Minister Esmael Mohamud Hurreh would not comment on the reported attack. He tells VOA that, it is the transitional federal government, which he refers to as TFG, that has the legitimacy in the volatile country.
"Our administration relies on a system where authority and resource division is actually done by the people. It is the government of the people, in actual sense, not in theoretical sense," he said. " A lot of people are asking for that, and seeing that the Islamic Courts are trying now to stop that, and to really see these movement of Islamic Courts coincide with the beginning of the TFG administrative structures."
The Islamic Courts Union, in turn, argues that its aim is to bring peace and stability to Somalia, and that the Courts have the best interest of the people in mind.
Militiamen of the Islamic Court in Mogadishu patrol the streets of Mogadishu
The Courts union first started expanding control in June, when its militias control of the capital, Mogadishu. It has since captured much of southern Somalia.
Monday's attack appears to be the first major advance against the Islamic Courts Union by the Somali government.
Somalia's interim government and the Union of Islamic Courts have been trying to negotiate a peace agreement that would see some sort of a power-sharing arrangement between them. The two met in Sudan last month, and are scheduled to finalize their agreement at the end of this month.
The two sides are also deadlocked over the issue of a regional peacekeeping force that the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development has offered, and, which the African Union has endorsed.
The Courts are vehemently opposed to having foreign peacekeepers in Somalia, while the government supports such a move. The Courts also maintain that Ethiopian troops have crossed over into Somalia to support the Somali government, a claim the government denies.
Since civil war broke out in 1991, militias loyal to clan and sub-clan-based factions have controlled different parts of the country, with no central authority to provide law and order and even basic services to the population.
A transitional Somali parliament was formed in Kenya more than a year ago following a peace process.
Somalia: Islamic Courts Warn of Possible Renewal of Civil War
The Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), which controls much of southern and central Somalia, has warned of imminent war between it and Somalia's Transitional Federal Government (TFG), which reportedly took a town close to its headquarters in Baidoa on Monday, a senior UIC official told IRIN.
"A combined Ethiopian and TFG force has taken Buur Hakaba town [60km north of Baidoa on the road to Mogadishu, the Somali capital] this morning [Monday] at around 8:00 am local time," said the UIC's vice-chairman Sheikh Abdulkadir Ali.
"War is expected at any time," he said.
Buur Hakaba, some 180 km from Mogadishu, was in the hands of a local militia sympathetic to the UIC, according to a local resident, until around 7.30am, when the militia left. The resident said TFG and Ethiopian troops had since entered the town.
The takeover of Buur Hakaba comes two weeks after the UIC itself took Somalia's southernmost port and third-largest city, Kismayo. The Islamic Courts established control of Somalia's capital, Mogadishu, in June.
Peace talks between Somalia's beleaguered government and the Islamic courts had been scheduled to resume in the Sudanese capital on 30 October, but now, Sheikh Ali said all UIC forces across Somalia had been put on high alert, and called the taking of Buur Hakaba "an attempt to derail the Khartoum peace talks and any hope for a reconciliation."
In Mogadishu, the chairman of the Islamic Courts, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, appeared dressed in military uniform, apparently for the first time. Journalists who saw him said Sheikh Ahmed accused Somalia's largest neighbour, Ethiopia, of aggression, and declared a Jihad [holy war] against it.
A TFG source, who wish to rename unnamed, confirmed the taking of Buur Hakaba by TFG forces, but denied they had Ethiopian assistance or any intention of attacking UIC positions elsewhere. "Our forces have taken Buur. It is for defensive purposes and not to mount an attack on the courts," said the source.
An Ethiopian government spokesman also denied the involvement of Ethiopian troops. "No Ethiopian troops have been assisting the TFG soldiers. No Ethiopian troops crossed the border [between Ethiopia and Somalia]," Salomon Abebe, spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said.
Humanitarian agencies worry that renewed fighting in Somalia could cause a worsening of existing humanitarian problems there. Larger numbers of Somali refugees have been arriving in Kenya in recent days to escape possible violence.
The United Nations' Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) for Somalia, told IRIN: "We cannot comment on military movements as such, however, in humanitarian terms, in the case of conflict seriously escalating, we would expect to see large displacement among the affected populations and an exacerbation of an already dire humanitarian situation in south-central [Somalia].
"We would be especially concerned about civilian populations becoming targets or hostages in such fighting," OCHA said, adding that the UN's Food and Agricultural Organization had recently predicted that if widespread conflict were to erupt, the total number of people in southern Somalia facing humanitarian crisis, could double, "rising as high as 3.6 million."
This military activity has increased tension in southern Somalia, with many people worried about renewed conflict. "We are indeed worried that this new development could lead to a wider war on many fronts. Any new fighting would be catastrophic for the already suffering Somali people," said Abdulkadir Ibrahim Abkow, president of Civil Society in Action.
Resumed warfare "would take Somalia back to 1991 [the start of Somalia's civil war] with the humanitarian implications that has," Adkow said. He called on both sides "to think of the interests of people first and foremost and to go to Khartoum instead of going to war".
Somalia's transitional government was installed in late 2004 but in June this year, the Islamic Courts' militias defeated warlords who supported the TFG and had controlled the city since 1991, following the collapse of a long lasting regime headed by Somalia's last real president, Muhammad Siyad Barre.