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Changes dateline, adds casualties, quotes, EU update

dpa German Press Agency
Published: Wednesday December 20, 2006

Mogadishu- Heavy fighting continued between Somalia's government forces and the powerful Islamists on Wednesday, raising fears that an all-out war could break out between the two sides who have been vying for power of the anarchic state. The Islamists said about four of their troops were killed in the clashes since they began on Tuesday night, and put the government casualties at nine.

They said they seized two towns - Buulo Jadiid, 20 kilometres east of the government's seat in the provincial capital Baidoa and Idale, 60 kilometres south-west of Baidoa.

"We captured two technical vehicles (pickups strapped with machine guns). We killed nine of their soldiers and we have taken prisoners," said Sheikh Mohamed Ibrahim Bilal, a senior Islamist official on the front line.

"In the coming hours, the government's seat Baidoa will be under our control and we will clean Ethiopians from our soil."

Tensions have been running high for months in the lawless country, especially after the Islamists issued an ultimatum last week to Ethiopia, which has troops in the country backing the weak government. They were told to leave in one week or face attacks.

That deadline passed on Tuesday with no serious fighting and following a downplaying of their fiery rhetoric by the Islamists, but Wednesday's skirmishes pointed to a possible escalation.

The fighting broke out overnight Tuesday in the town of Idale where the two sides have built up their forces.

"The clash came when both sides' forces who were manoeuvring near Idale, confronted each other, instantly exchanging gunfire and artillery (fire). The fighting escalated as backup forces arrived for the government troops and Islamists," one witness told Somali news agency Shabelle, on condition of anonymity.

The clashes came as the EU's development and aid chief Louis Michel arrived to Baidoa Wednesday morning to meet with the government. He was also due to speak with Islamic Courts' officials in Mogadishu to urge them to return to peace talks which collapsed in October.

He didn't speak to reporters in Baidoa but told politicians that the EU would provide financial support to the government.

The Islamists, who took Mogadishu in June and now control most of south-central Somalia, have vowed to wage jihad (holy war) on Ethiopian soldiers in the country.

A few hundred Ethiopians are said to be training the fragile but internationally-backed interim government, which is limited to its base in Baidoa.

Somalia has been without a strong central government since the 1991 ouster of dictator Mohammed Siad Barre plunged the country into anarchy. Western powers believe Islamist rule could open the door to jihadists waging war on behalf of al-Qaeda.

Experts warn an all-out war could break out over the Somali conflict if a power-sharing deal between the two sides is not reached.

© 2006 dpa German Press Agency