Somali Islamists said they had poured thousands of fighters and heavy equipment into frontline positions yesterday as they braced for clashes with the weak government and its Ethiopian allies.
The Islamists said they had reinforced areas outside the government seat of Baidoa, about 250km northwest of Mogadishu, anticipating imminent attack and accusing neighboring Ethiopia of sending air power.
"We are completely ready here on the frontlines and keeping inside our trenches," Islamist military chief Sheikh Muktar Robow told reporters. "We are facing the Ethiopian invaders. The only thing we expect is the start of battle."
"The Ethiopians have brought warplanes, including helicopters, and even heavy tanks to Baidoa and they are intending to wage an attack against us and we are ready for that," he said.
The Islamists and the Ethiopian-backed government have been girding for all-out war near Baidoa for weeks, since the collapse of peace talks earlier this month, but in recent days have stepped up preparations.
The Islamists have declared holy war on Ethiopian troops in Somalia protecting the transitional government and Robow said his fighters had full confidence in winning the battle against the "forces of the devil."
"This fighting is a religious obligation on every Somali and I call on all Somalis to take up arms and go to the battlefield," said Robow, one of several Islamist military commanders believed to have trained in Afghanistan.
On Thursday, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi told parliament that Addis Ababa had taken the necessary preparations for war with the Islamists, which he accused of posing a "clear and present danger" to his country.
A day later, opposition law-makers who had refused to endorse Meles' plans said they would back their government if it decided to fight the Islamists, some of whom are accused of links with al-Qaeda.
Fighters from all sides are encamped at positions less than 20km apart near the Islamist-held towns of Mode Mode and Burhakaba areas, 25km to 30km southeast of Baidoa.
Local residents said they had seen unprecedentedly large num-bers of gunmen in the areas and expressed fear for their lives, already jeopardized by devastating floods that UN officials believe could be the worst in 50 years.
"I have never seen such a huge number of fighters around Burhakaba," resident Osman Ibarahim Rafiyo told reporters. "I saw more than 56 armed vehicles and thou-sands of Islamic militias pouring into the battlefield."
"I think this fighting will take more lives than expected," he said.
Mainly Christian Ethiopia has watched with growing concern the rise on its southeastern border of the Islamists, who seized Mogadishu in June and now control most of southern and central Somalia.
With a large ethnic Somali population, Ethiopia fears radicalization of its sizable Muslim minority by the Islamists, some of whom are accused of links to al-Qaeda, who have imposed strict Sharia law in areas they control.
Last Sunday and Tuesday, the Islamists said their holy warriors had carried out attacks on Ethio-pian military targets around Baidoa, further raising tensions ratcheted up by what UN experts say is a huge influx of arms and materiel sent to Somalia in violation of a 1992 arms embargo.
Ethiopia is one of 10 countries, along with Lebanon's militant Hezbollah movement, accused of violating the embargo and fuelling concern that full-scale war in Somalia could engulf the entire Horn of Africa region.