Attacking at dawn, Ethiopian and Somali government troops yesterday drove Islamic movement fighters out of the last major town on the road to the capital.
A former warlord, who ruled the town of Jowhar before it was captured by the Council of Islamic Courts in June, led the Somali government troops as they drove into the city, residents said.
"Ethiopian troops and Mohammed Dheere have entered the city," Abshir Ali Gabre said.
Dheere, who was wearing a white "I Love Jowhar" T-shirt, shook hands with residents and handed out dozens of the shirts to residents.
Government spokesman Abdirahman Dinari said his troops were heading toward the small village of Balad, about 30km away. A resident there, Mohammed Abdi Hassan, said by telephone that the Islamists had left and that no one was in control.
But fighting could still be heard at a military camp south of Jowhar, and an Islamic movement official said his troops were simply entering a new phase in their battle.
"Our snakes of defense were let loose, now they are ready to bite the enemy everywhere in Somalia," Sheik Mohamoud Ibrahim Suley said.
He did not elaborate, but some Islamic leaders have threatened a guerrilla war to include suicide bombings in Addis Ababa.
Ethiopian forces entered the country in large numbers on Saturday, and Ethiopian fighter jets crossed the border on Sunday to help Somalia's UN-backed government push back the Islamists.
Government forces attacked Jowhar yesterday with artillery, mortars and heavy machine guns, and Islamic fighters used irrigation canals as fortifications, witnesses said. The militia, which wants to rule Somalia according to Islamic law, had stopped what their leaders earlier called a tactical retreat to defend Jowhar.
Hundreds of people have been fleeing Jowhar, anticipating major fighting, but others seemed resigned to it.
"We do not know where to escape, we are already suffering from floods, hunger and disease," said Abdale Haji Ali in Jowhar. "We are awaiting death."
Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said on Tuesday that he had received unconfirmed reports that as many as 1,000 people had died and 3,000 were wounded since the fighting began on Saturday.
"Some of them are Somalis, but a very significant proportion of them are not Somalis," Meles told reporters in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, referring to foreign Islamic radicals who reportedly joined the fighting.
The International Committee of the Red Cross reported that 850 people, now at hospitals supported by the relief agency in Mogadishu and Baidoa, had been injured since the fighting began, but there was no figure for fatalities.
Meles said his forces had completed about half of their mission. He said there were 3,000 to 4,000 Ethiopian troops in Somalia -- "but no more."
Meles said he aimed to severely damage the courts' military capabilities and allow both sides to return to peace talks on an even footing. He said he would not send troops into Mogadishu, which the Islamic movement has held since June.
At the UN on Tuesday, the secretary-general's special representative to Somalia told an emergency meeting of the Security Council that fighting had expanded across a 400km-wide area.
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