Troops in the semi-autonomous and secular region of Puntland in Somalia have reportedly been placed on full alert, after they failed to stop Somali Islamists from capturing a town Sunday near Galkaayo.
Puntland's Minister of Information Abdurahman Banga confirmed that Islamist militiamen are in control of the town of Bandiradley, nearly 700 kilometers north of the Somali capital, Mogadishu.
Banga said that Islamist forces attacked the town first, disputing Islamists' contention that its forces there came under attack from pro-government militiamen, backed by troops from Ethiopia and Puntland.
The Islamists, whose leadership Ethiopia and the United States believes has ties to al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations, already control most areas of southern and central Somalia.
But Bandiradley is the northernmost town the Islamists have seized in Somalia since they took power from factional leaders in Mogadishu in early June.
Bandiradley is only 70 kilometers from the Puntland town of Galkaayo, which some Islamist militia leaders have vowed to take next.
Mohamed Kashawito is the Director of Radio Unity in Bossasso in northern Puntland. He tells VOA that many people in Puntland are expecting Islamists to push into Puntland and spark a major clash.
He said, "Yes, there are some [people] afraid because the Islamic courts are capturing more districts in Somalia and are very strong. Now, Puntland has prepared one thousand five hundred troops. Both sides are ready to fight."
Sunday's fighting involved forces loyal to secular factional leader Abdi Qeybdid, who hails from Puntland and was the last factional leader to be ousted from Mogadishu in June. Qeybdid is allied with Somalia's weak transitional government, Puntland's regional administration, and Ethiopia.
Last week, his forces fought a brief battle with Islamist militiamen for control of Bandiradley, but failed to secure the town.
Puntland officials acknowledge that their troops were involved in Sunday's battle. But they deny Islamist charges that Ethiopians also fought alongside them.
A recent U.N. report estimated that as many as eight-thousand Ethiopian troops may be in Somalia or deployed along the border. Ethiopia maintains it only has a few hundred military advisors to support the transitional government in Baidoa.
Experts have warned that Somalia could become a proxy battleground for Ethiopia and Eritrea, who fought a war nearly a decade ago and remain bitter enemies. Eritrea is accused of supplying the Islamists with weapons, in a bid to destabilize Ethiopia.
Meanwhile, neighboring Kenya announced that all commercial flights to and from Somalia would be suspended indefinitely.
The move follows recent warnings by the United States that extremists in Somalia may be planning to stage suicide bombings in Kenya and Ethiopia.