MOGADISHU (AFP) â€” Somalia’s Ethiopia-backed forces and Islamic fighters clashed Thursday near the seat of government in Baidoa for a second day with both sides claiming inflicting massive casualties, officials and witnesses said.
A day after European Commission humanitarian chief Louis Michel said he had secured both sides’ commitment to observeÂ a truce and resume peace talks, the Islamic movement chief called on Somalis to join the war against Ethiopian forces. The government said Wednesday it had killed “hundreds” of rival fighters and wounded hundreds while the Islamists said they had killed at least 70 enemy combatants in the deadly assaults. None of the figures could be independently confirmed.
“Our mujahedeens have killed 70 soldiers today … the Islamic courts are winning the war against Ethiopian invasion,” Sheikh Mahmoud Ibrahim Sulley, the secretary of the Islamists, told a press conference in Mogadishu.
At the same time, residents said an Ethiopian helicopter landed in Baidoa, the seat of government, about 250 kilometres northwest of the capital Mogadishu.
“I saw an Ethiopian-flagged military chopper, it collected some wounded soldiers from the airport,” said Abdullahi Mohammad, who lives nearby.
“Mortar fire was still going on at night … nothing has stopped,” said Information Minister Ali Jama, adding that the Islamists were mobilising more fighters to widen a conflict that compounds the misery of nearly a million people affected by recent flooding.
“The fighting is still continuing and we don’t know how things can be changed,” said Hussein Ali, a Baidoa resident said.
Islamists chief Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys rallied Somalis to join the war against Ethiopian forces deployed to protect the government.
“All Somalis should join the war against Ethiopia,” Aweys told HornAfrik radio, a day after he said the conflict was “a small incident.” Hundreds of terrified civilians continued fleeing from the frontline into safer areas.
“I have taken my family to Baidoa for safety, because we can hear heavy artillery shells in the area,” said Adan Mursal, a resident of Daynunay, a flashpoint garrison town, about 30 kilometres east of Baidoa.
“No one slept all night long because of the fierce fighting,” said Mursal, explaining the town is still under control of the government.
More fighting was reported in Manas garrison and Dinsoor trading post, 30 kilometres and 120 kilometres south of the government seat. Witnesses said many Ethiopian troops were deployed in and around the garrison outposts outside Baidoa, the only town under control of the government, to ward off a feared Islamic advance.
“The government will not attack anybody, but we are prepared to defend ourselves,” Jama said of the clashes threatening to embroil the entire region, possible drawing in Addis Ababa’s archfoe Eritrea.
Fighting erupted early Wednesday, hours after the expiry of an Islamist ultimatum for Ethiopian forces to pull out or face major attacks.
Deputy Defence Minister Salad Ali Jelle said the army was winning the fight, which erupted when Islamists raided the two garrisons.
“We have repelled the terrorists and have killed hundreds… they have suffered a lot and won’t ever forget,” he said.
Late Wednesday, Michel announced that President Abdullahi Yusuf and Aweys had agreed to a truce and unconditional resumption of Arab League-mediated peace talks in Khartoum.
Those talks collapsed in November when Islamists refused to negotiate until Ethiopian troops pull out amid mutual accusations of violating the previously agreed recognition and truce pacts.
“These people have signed two agreements and yet they fight us, do you think the word of mouth to the EU envoy will stop them from attacking us,” Jama said.
The Islamists, who control much of southern and central Somalia and are accused of links to Al Qeada, have already declared a holy war on Ethiopian forces and claimed first blood in recent skirmishes with Addis Ababa troops.
The government officials said fugitive terror suspects and foreign fighters were bolstering the Islamists.
Somalia has lacked an effective administration since the 1991 ouster of dictator Mohammad Siad Barre and the two-year-old government has failed to exert control across the impoverished nation of 10 million people. Â