Dec 21, 2006 (MOGADISHU) — Somalia’s Ethiopia-backed forces and Islamist fighters clashed Thursday near the seat of government in Baidoa for a second day, with Ethiopian tanks reportedly brought into battle and both sides claiming to inflict massive casualties.
As Islamists called for war against Addis Ababa, witnesses saw Ethiopian tanks being deployed east and south of Baidoa, seat of the country’s weak government about 250 kilometres (155 miles) northwest of the capital.
“I saw ten Ethiopian tanks inside (Baidoa) town and they were heading to Daynunay area,” a flashpoint garrison town, about 30 kilometres to the east, Mohamed Sahal, a resident of Baidoa said.
Earlier Abdullahi Mohamed, another resident, said he had seen an Ethiopian military helicopter land in Baidoa, collecting wounded soldiers from the airport.
Addis Ababa has been intervening on behalf of the government against the Islamist forces, which control the capital Mogadishu and much of the war-ravaged Horn of Africa nation.
Earlier, Islamist chief Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys had rallied Somalis to join the war against Ethiopian forces, two days after a deadline the Islamist gave Ethiopian troops to pull out or face major attacks expired.
“All Somalis should join the war against Ethiopia,” Aweys told HornAfrik radio.
Thursday’s flare-up came despite European Commission humanitarian chief Louis Michel saying the previous day that he had secured both sides’ commitment to observe a truce and resume peace talks.
Commanders said rival forces were reinforcing Daynunay and a second outpost Idale, 60 kilometres south of Baidoa.
“The fighting in Idale area is intensifying … There are a lot of reinforcements from both sides,” government commander Ibrahim Batari said.
“There are a lot bodies littered on the battle ground… No one can confirm the casualties at the moment because the fighting is very heavy,” he added.
Islamist commanders, meanwhile, vowed they would use all the weapons in their possession to tackle their rivals.
“I tell you that there are great losses in this fighting,” said Islamist commander Mohamed Ibrahim Bilal.
“We are enforcing our side and they are reinforcing theirs too. We are getting information that Ethiopians have brought a lot of tanks into Baidoa for reinforcement,” he added.
“We are not going to spare anything, we will use all the weapons that we have,” Bilal said.
The fighting followed clashes on Wednesday, hours after the expiry of an Islamist ultimatum for Ethiopian forces to pull out or face major attacks.
The government claimed to have killed “hundreds” of rival fighters and wounded hundreds, while the Islamists said they had killed at least 70.
“Our mujahedeens have killed 70 soldiers … the Islamic courts are winning the war against Ethiopian invasion,” Sheikh Mohamoud Ibrahim Sulley, the secretary of the Islamists, told a press conference in Mogadishu.
Both sides acknowledged heavy casualties, but there was no independent confirmation on the figures.
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 (20 miles) east of Baidoa.
“No one slept all night long because of the fierce fighting,” said Mursal, explaining the town was still under control of the government.
The UN Office of the Coordinator for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) for Somalia warned that further fighting would cut off the supply of aid for nearly a million people affected by recent flooding.
“Engaging in conflict at a time when a significant segment of the population is already struggling for survival is unacceptable,” OCHA official Eric Laroche said in a statement.
Somalia has lacked an effective administration since the 1991 ouster of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre and the two-year-old government has failed to exert control across the impoverished nation of 10 million people.