Somalia's powerful Islamists said yesterday that they were finalizing plans to fight Ethiopian forces deployed in the lawless country as a seven-day ultimatum for Addis Ababa to pull out its troops was due to expire.
But as Islamic fighters and government troops, backed by Ethiopian forces, girded for an all-out war, the Islamists said they might not attack immediately.
"The decision to attack the Ethiopians was already reached, but we are now in the last stages of preparing for the full-scale war," top Islamic commander Mohamed Ibrahim Bilal said.
"I cannot say we will start fighting today or tomorrow, but we expect a heavy war as long as Ethiopians stay inside our territory," added Bilal, who commands Islamic fighters in frontlines near the the the government seat in Baidoa, about 250km northwest of the capital Mogadishu.
"I have heard about people saying the Islamic courts have halted their plan for jihad, this is baseless statement, we shall never renege on our promise to fight Ethiopian invaders," he said.
Government officials could not be reached for comment, but Information Minister Ali Jama said on Monday that government forces were on alert, although a conflict could still be avoided through talks.
Over the weekend, top Islamist official, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, said the movement was prepared for "dialogue" with Ethiopia.
Ahmed and the speaker of the Somali parliament Sharif Hassan Sheikh Aden announced a deal, reached in Yemen, to bring the Islamists and the government back to the negotiating table after Arab League-mediated peace talks collapsed last month.
Officials said several western and African diplomats have been lobbying both sides to refrain from fresh skirmishes.
The government has toned down its objection to peace talks with the Islamists, who control swathes of southern and central Somalia, but said its rival's saber rattling was making a search for dialogue impossible.
The Islamists, who are accused of links to al-Qaeda, have already declared a holy war on Ethiopian forces and claimed first blood in recent skirmishes with Addis Ababa troops.
Ethiopia has sent several hundred military trainers and advisers to help the Somali government, but denies widespread reports it has deployed thousands of combat troops to Somalia to forestall a feared Islamist advance towards Baidoa, the only city held by the transitional administration.
Analysts have warned that an all-out war in Somalia would engulf the whole region, as both countries are accused of fighting a proxy war in Somalia.
The Islamists have rejected the recent UN approval of deployment of peacekeepers to protect the government, with clerics vowing to attack any foreign troops stepping into Somalia.
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