Top Somali Islamist downplays war fears

MOGADISHU (Reuters) — Somali Islamists and troops defending the government’s only stronghold battled with rockets and heavy weapons on Wednesday at two frontline areas, but a top Islamist leader denied it was the start of war.

“The war has not started. This is a small incident,” Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys told reporters after meeting visiting European Union aid chief Louis Michel.

Michel, on a diplomatic push to get the Islamists and rival interim government back to the negotiating table, said the Somalia Islamic Courts Council (SICC) had agreed to resume peace talks in Khartoum without conditions. “They have accepted our proposal,” he said, with both men calling it a “breakthrough”.

Government officials were not immediately available for comment.

The talk of fresh negotiations was in stark contrast to two days of clashes that have heightened fears of a Horn of Africa conflict a day after the expiry of an Islamist deadline for government-allied Ethiopian troops to leave.

With a battle under way 70km southwest of the government’s surrounded outpost Baidoa since late Tuesday, another clash erupted on Wednesday just 25km southeast of the town on a strategic part of the front line.

“Neither side is winning. It’s the Ethiopian troops who were fighting the Islamists. I am trapped,” a driver stranded between the opposing sides told Reuters by telephone, with the sounds of the fighting echoing in the background. “Bullets and heavy rockets are flying everywhere. Fresh Islamist troops are now fighting Ethiopians who are waiting for backup,” said the driver, who declined to give his name.

The newest clash took place between the government’s forward base in Daynunay and Buur Hakaba, the furthest point where Islamist forces had advanced along the road from their headquarters in the traditional Somali capital, Mogadishu.

The SICC, which has used its military might to spread Sharia law across most of southern Somalia, said it was sending reinforcements from Mogadishu to the front. Already, the two sides exchanged artillery fire in Idaale, southwest of Baidoa, after a gunfight between reconnaissance units broke out late Tuesday. At least three fighters were killed and two injured in that battle, both sides said.

A government security source who declined to be named said dozens of Ethiopian soldiers on 13 trucks drove from Baidoa to the battle: “This is the fighting we have been waiting for.”

Many in the region have feared for months the start of a Somali war, which could bring in rivals Ethiopia and Eritrea and trigger suicide bombings in east Africa.

The rivals for control of the anarchic nation, in an impasse since power-sharing talks broke down in November, have been perched on the edge of war for weeks across a jagged front line of mainly scrubby plains.

Michel met officials in Baidoa on Wednesday as the fighting raged outside town. He then flew to Mogadishu, held by the Islamists since they kicked out US-backed warlords in June, speaking with Aweys, who denies US and UN charges he is linked to Al Qaeda.

The Islamists accuse Ethiopia, Washington’s top counterterrorism ally, of invading Somalia and have threatened holy war against any foreign troops there. Al Qaeda leader Osama Ben Laden has publicly encouraged jihadists to join such a war.

Ethiopia blamed the Islamists for the clashes, accusing its fighters of launching artillery attacks against government positions in Baidoa.

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