Somalia's Islamic militia said yesterday it had trained special forces to carry out guerrilla warfare against Ethiopian troops supporting the UN-backed government.
The announcement came during a lull in fighting between the militia and government forces. Islamic forces have declared they want to bring the whole country under Koranic rule and vowed to continue attacks to drive out troops from neighboring Ethiopia, a largely Christian nation that is providing military support.
On Friday, officials said that hundreds of people had been killed since Tuesday night.
"Special forces who are highly trained in guerrilla warfare are now ready to attack Ethiopians, wherever they are in Somalia," said Sheik Ibrahim Shukri Abuu-Zeynab, a spokesman for the Islamic movement.
Sporadic gunfire and shelling could be heard on Friday around Baidoa, the UN-backed government's only stronghold, but residents and officials said the fighting had tapered off.
Thousands of Somalis have fled their homes as troops loyal to the two-year-old interim administration fought Islamic fighters who had advanced on Baidoa, northwest of the capital.
Islamic militiamen have control over Mogadishu along with most of southern Somalia.
The clashes could mean a major conflict in this volatile region.
Ethiopia, which has one of the largest armies in the region, and its bitter rival, Eritrea, could use Somalia as the ground for a proxy war. While Ethiopia backs the internationally recognized government, Eritrea backs the Islamic movement.
In Kismayo, a strategic seaport captured from the government by Islamic militia in September, several foreign Arab fighters were seen by residents unloading from ships.
Government officials said more than 600 Islamic fighters had been killed during four days of clashes. Islamic militia said they had killed around 400 Ethiopians and government fighters. Neither claim could be independently confirmed.
In New York, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan called on both sides to "cease the hostilities immediately and to resume the peace talks ... without delay and without any precondition," his spokesman, Stephane Dujarric, said in a statement released late on Friday.
He also voiced "grave concern" over reports of the involvement of "foreign forces ... and he implores all involved to respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Somalia."
Annan is "deeply concerned that the escalation of conflict in Somalia will have disastrous consequences for civilians, who are already suffering from the effects of years of instability and deprivation, compounded by the severe flooding that has recently affected parts of the country," Dujarric said.
The UN issued a statement in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, on Friday calling for an "immediate end" to the conflict.
It was unclear how long the guns would remain quiet, as earlier on Friday four Ethiopian attack helicopters and about 20 tanks headed for battle, witnesses and a government official said.
Bodies lay in the streets of villages where attacks had taken place on Thursday night, and families began to abandon their homes, crops and livestock, fearing worsening fighting. Hundreds of people in areas held by the Islamic forces were also fleeing.
"I think we have lost hundreds of our animals in the fighting, most of them were caught in the crossfire," said Malable Aden, who reached Mogadishu by car. "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."