Thousands of Somalis fled their homes yesterday as government and Ethiopian troops used artillery to defend against Islamic fighters attempting to advance on the UN-backed regime's only stronghold.
Residents reported seeing hundreds of troops and trucks being moved toward the front lines early yesterday, following a night of heavy artillery and mortar fire. Bodies lay in the streets on Thursday night, and as the battle raged -- leaving a European peace initiative in tatters -- families began to abandon their homes, crops and livestock, fearing worsening fighting.
"Unlike during the previous days of the fighting, this morning large numbers of people were coming from the villages around Baidoa and could be seen fleeing from the region," said Duqow Salad, a UN aid worker.
Hundreds of people in areas held by the Islamic forces were also fleeing south to the capital, Mogadishu.
"I think we have lost hundreds of our animals in the fighting, most of them were caught in the cross-fire," Malable Aden, who reached Mogadishu by car, said.
"We were supposed to reap our harvest of this season, but unfortunately we were forced to leave them behind for the pigs and birds to destroy them," Aden said.
Fighting along two separate front lines continued for a fourth day yesterday, with both sides claiming victory.
On Wednesday, the leader of the Council of Islamic Courts said Somalia was at a state of war and called on all Somalis to fight Ethiopian forces in the country.
But the transitional federal government depends on Ethiopian troops for protection and as military advisers, making it impossible to differentiate government soldiers from Ethiopian forces.
The clashes threaten to spiral into a major conflict in this volatile region, sucking in Ethiopia and its bitter rival Eritrea. Analysts believe Ethiopia may soon raise the stakes by deploying attack helicopters in support of the government.
A photographer saw 19 bodies of Islamic fighters on Thursday in Moode Moode, a town 15km from the government garrison at Baidoa.
Meanwhile Sheik Ibrahim Shukri Abuu-Zeynab, a spokesman for the Islamic movement, said it had captured Idale, a town 60km southwest of Baidoa and the scene of fighting on Tuesday, killing 200 Ethiopian troops. The claim could not be verified.
As shelling continued close to Baidoa, Islamic leader Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys called for all Somalis to join the fight against neighboring Ethiopia.
"All Somalis should take part in this struggle against Ethiopia," he told reporters.
Eritrea is accused of supporting the Islamic group.
The UN appealed for calm, saying fighting would prevent aid from reaching hundreds of thousands in dire need of help because of hunger and flooding.
The interim government holds only a small area around the central town of Baidoa. The Islamic militiamen control the capital, Mogadishu, but have also fanned out across most of southern Somalia.
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