LEGO, Somalia, (Reuters) â€” Heavily armed Islamist fighters gathered near a key southern Somali town on Sunday a day after their allies were chased out by government troops, sending many residents fleeing in fear of an all-out attack.
One Islamist source said its troops were also planning an attack on the government’s base in provincial Baidoa town, and in the south residents said Islamist forces routed militia loyal to the government’s defence minister, forcing him to flee.
Sunday’s tensions were the closest the two sides have come close to a full-scale confrontation, which diplomats fear could trigger a regional war in the Horn of Africa, already one of the world’s poorest regions due to conflict and its harsh climate.
The seizure of Bur Hakaba, just 30 km from the government’s seat in Baidoa, on Saturday represented a rare strike back against the newly powerful Islamists by the chaotic country’s fragile Western-backed interim administration.
But it prompted hundreds of Islamists to converge on the nearby town of Lego, vowing to attack government forces they said were backed by Ethiopian troops if they did not withdraw.
“The Ethiopians have attacked Bur Hakaba and if they don’t leave we will attack them,” the Islamists’ commander Sheikh Yusuf Mohammad Siad told Reuters, dressed in military fatigues.
“Ethiopia and its allies are against the peace we have brought to Somalia after 16 years of unrest,” he said as Islamist battlewagons â€” trucks mounted with heavy machineguns and anti-aircraft rockets â€” rumbled through Lego.
“If these attacks continue we will ask other Islamic nations to help us,” he said. The Islamists have declared holy war on Ethiopia, which has denounced them as â€œterroristsâ€.
The rise of the Islamists, who control much of the south after seizing the capital Mogadishu from US-backed warlords in June, threatens the government’s attempts to reimpose central rule on a country in chaos since the 1991 ouster of a dictator.
One Islamist source told Reuters hundreds of fighters and dozens of battlewagons were en route to attack Baidoa itself.
“It will be a surprise attack since the government is waiting for our forces to strike Bur Hakaba,” the source said.
Islamist forces were said to be within 15km of Bur Hakaba, but there were no immediate reports of fresh fighting there.
Somalia’s interim government has said its forces will not leave Bur Hakaba and has repeatedly denied having Ethiopian help, even though residents say Addis Ababa has sent troops over the border to support the weak administration.
“On our way to the mosque late on Saturday we saw nearly 1,000 Ethiopian troops driving on military trucks,” said Asha Mohammad in Baidoa. “I could tell them apart from the Somali troops because of their helmets. Somalis do not wear helmets.” To the southwest, residents said Islamist troops defeated militia loyal to Defence Minister Barre Hiraale.
“Islamist troops have taken over his base in Sakow and seized 16 of his battlewagons, including the one he was riding on,” local resident Ahmed Nur told Reuters.
“He has escaped and the troops are on his heels. His chief militiaman has been captured. … Dead bodies are littered in and around Sakow and there are many more who are wounded.” Somalis, meanwhile, were seeking shelter from the turmoil.
Many residents of Bur Hakaba fled for surrounding villages fearing an all-out attack by the Islamists, and many in Lego said they were considering following suit.
“The whole town is worried and we don’t know what direction we will flee when this war breaks out,” said businessman Abdulkadir Nuur.