Somalia's radical Islamic militia has advanced to within 20km of the only town controlled by the government, the closest the fighters have gotten to the fragile administration's headquarters, an Islamic official said on Wednesday.
The militia, which has seized much of southern Somalia since taking over the capital, Mogadishu, in June, reached Moode Moode on Tuesday night, said local militia leader Mohammed Ibrahim Bilal. The group has started 24-hour patrols in the area, he said.
"Our aim was to help the local residents in their fighting of bandits and to lift blockages from the road linking Baidoa to Mogadishu," Bilal said.
Abdirahman Dinari, a spokesman for the Baidoa-based government, described the militia's advance as "a provocative action."
Earlier on Wednesday, Islamic leaders held a rally that drew thousands of mostly women and students in the port city of Kismayo,and vowed to wage holy war against any group that tries to stop their military advances.
"The time for ambiguity and hypocrisy has ended. By God, we will wage a holy war against our enemies," senior Islamic official Mohammed Wali Sheik Ahmed told a crowd of at least 5,000. The militia seized Kismayo, one of the last remaining ports outside their control and Somalia's third-largest city, last week without a fight.
But thousands turned out to protest the group after they arrived, and a 13-year-old was killed when the radicals opened fire. Several smaller protests were held despite the violence that met the initial demonstration.
On Wednesday, Islamic gunmen kept watch over the crowd from cars fitted with guns. The demonstrators were mostly women and students who attend Islamic schools in Kismayo.
The women held up copies of the Koran and students wore yellow and green school uniforms. The crowd decried interference by neighboring Ethiopia, which backs Somalia's weak official government.
"We came here to support the Islamic courts and reject Ethiopia," said 30-year-old Suleiman Omar. "Ethiopia is against the peace and stability that came with Islamic courts, who are working according to our interests and wishes."
Somalia has not had an effective national government since 1991, when warlords overthrew dictator Mohammed Siad Barre and then turned on one another, throwing the country into anarchy.
A transitional government was formed in 2004 with UN help in the hope of restoring order after years of lawlessness. But it has struggled to assert authority, while the Islamic movement seized the capital, Mogadishu, in June and now controls much of the south.
The Islamic group's strict and often severe interpretation of Islam raises memories of Afghanistan's Taliban.
The US has accused Somalia's Islamic group of sheltering suspects in the 1998 al-Qaeda bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.