Thousands of Somalis began fleeing the front line yesterday as heavily armed Ethiopian troops supported by tanks and MiG fighter jets closed in on the last remaining stronghold of a militant Islamic movement.
Up to 2,000 people, carrying what they could, streamed out of the southern Somali town of Jilib, the gateway to the Islamic group's coastal stronghold, where an estimated 3,000 hardcore Islamic fighters were preparing for a bloody showdown.
In the past 10 days, the Islamic group has been forced from the capital, Mogadishu, and other key towns in the face of attacks led by Ethiopia, the region's greatest military power. Somalia's interim government and its Ethiopian allies accuse the Islamic group of harboring extremists linked to al-Qaeda.
Somalia's prime minister called for dialogue on Saturday, but warned that any resistance by the Islamic group would be met with force. In Kenya, diplomatic efforts were under way to try and secure a peaceful end to the 12-day conflict.
Ibrahim Hassan Adow, the Islamic group's foreign affairs chief, is in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, for talks, Islamic officials said on condition of anonymity. The speaker of the transitional government's parliament, Sheik Sharif Hassan Aden, who has close sympathies with the Islamic group, is also in Kenya for talks.
The military advance marks a stunning turnaround for Somalia's government, which just weeks ago could barely control one town -- its base of Baidoa -- while the Council of Islamic Courts controlled the capital and much of southern Somalia.
The government and Ethiopian troops, riding in 16 Ethiopian tanks, armored vehicles and artillery, were 120km north of the front line town of Jilib. Those fleeing were mainly women and children.
"The Islamic militia told us they are committed to defend the town to the death, so we have no other option but to flee", said Ilse Ali Ilweyn, a father of six who lives in Jilib, the first line of defense for the Islamic group and gateway town to Kismayo, 100km to the south and the Islamic stronghold.
The Council of Islamic Courts, the umbrella group for the Islamic movement that ruled Mogadishu for six months, has pledged to continue its fight, despite military losses.
"I want to tell you that the Islamic courts are still alive and ready to fight against the enemy of Allah," Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, the group's leader, told residents in Kismayo on Saturday.
"We left Mogadishu in order to prevent bloodshed in the capital, but that does not mean we lost the holy war against our enemy," he added.
Islamic officials claimed they still had fighters in the capital and were ready for attacks. Late on Saturday an unexplained blast in the capital left one woman dead and two others wounded.