Somalia's powerful Islamists claimed on Saturday to have drawn first blood in their jihad against Ethiopian troops, as the lawless nation edged closer to war that could engulf the entire Horn of Africa.
The Islamists said gunmen allied to their movement had ambushed a military vehicle near the government seat of Baidoa, killing two soldiers and wounding four. They maintained the six were Ethiopians sent to protect the weak interim administration.
At the same time, Ethiopia and arch-foe Eritrea, which is accused of backing the Islamists, traded allegations over Somalia, which many believe has become a proxy battleground for the neighbors' unresolved border conflict.
In Baidoa, northwest of the capital Mogadishu, the government blamed Islamists for the attack on the van it said was carrying six of its own soldiers, not Ethiopians.
Both sides have been girding for battle in the area. Witnesses said the vehicle was driving into Baidoa from a nearby military base when gunmen opened fire with automatic weapons and artillery from the bush.
"I saw a government vehicle mounted with a machine gun come under attack as it entered the town," said Hilaal Mohamed Abukar, who lives near Baidoa hospital. "The attack left two soldiers dead and four others wounded."
He and other witnesses said they could not identify the attackers. But in Mogadishu the Islamists quickly claimed responsibility, saying the ambush was carried out by its supporters as the opening salvo in their holy war.
"Jihad has started around areas where Ethiopian forces are staying, like in Baidoa," said Sheikh Mukhtar Robow, the Islamists' deputy defense chief. "We thank the local people who have started ambushing the Ethiopian forces."
"Wherever Ethiopians are, they will be killed," he told reporters in the capital.
The Islamists seized Mogadishu in June and have used it as a base to expand their territory to include nearly all of southern and central Somalia.
"We call on locals who translate for Ethiopians to stay away. Otherwise we shall slaughter them," said Robow, one of several Islamist leaders accused by the US, Ethiopia and others of links to al-Qaeda.
The attack ratcheted up tension in Baidoa, which has been on a war footing since peace talks collapsed this week in Sudan. Residents said government forces and Ethiopian troops had been conducting searches there for extremist clerics.
"They are looking for Islamic courts supporters who could sneak into Baidoa villages," said Baidoa resident Adaf Sheikh Mumin.
He and others said they had seen 33 uniformed Ethiopian soldiers assisting in the raids but government officials could not be reached for comment on their alleged presence.
The Islamists say that Ethiopia has deployed some 12,000 troops to protect the Somali government from a feared and seemingly imminent advance by the Islamists, who have been massing fighters and weapons in the nearby town of Burhakaba.
Ethiopia denies having thousands of soldiers in Somalia. But it acknowledges sending military advisers to defend itself and the government from the Islamists, who it says are being supplied and trained by Eritrea.
On Saturday, Addis Ababa launched another broadside at Asmara, accusing it of forming and coordinating an anti-Ethiopian front in Somalia among domestic separatist rebels, "terrorists" and the Islamists.
"The anti-Ethiopia forces currently amassed in Somalia ... coordinated by the Eritrean government and the radical groups in Mogadishu, have neither a religious agenda nor any significant vision other than using the so-called Union of Islamic Courts as a cover for their destructive machinations," the Ethiopian foreign ministry said.
Eritrea, which hotly rejects allegations it has sent some 2,000 soldiers to Somalia in support of the Islamists, immediately denounced the accusation. They said it was a US-Ethiopian plan to invade Somalia, in a misguided effort to pursue the "war on terror."