Islamist insurgents have moved to impose Sharia law in a key Somali port town they seized Wednesday.
Residents of Merka were ordered Thursday to shut down their businesses during Muslim prayer times. An insurgent commander, Sheik Abukar, also vowed to change the behavior of youths in the town.
The al-Shabab militant group took Merka without a fight Wednesday after pro-government forces fled. The town is the main entry point for U.N. food aid to Somalia, and is just 90 kilometers south of the capital, Mogadishu.
Islamist forces have been conquering territory in recent days as the Somali government squabbles over formation of a new cabinet.
Witnesses Thursday said al-Shabab has taken the town of Elasha, just 18 kilometers outside Mogadishu. However, Reuters news agency said the insurgents left when Ethiopian troops who back the Somali government arrived.
In Washington, a State Department spokesman, Robert Wood, said attacks by Islamic forces are a matter of "great concern" to the U.S, and pledged to support Somalia's transitional government.
Somali President Abdullahi Yusuf and Prime Minister Nur Hassan Hussein are in Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa. The Ethiopian news agency said they came to discuss their country's situation with Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.
Ethiopia sent thousands of troops into Somalia two years ago to help the government oust an Islamist movement that had seized power across much of southern Somalia. The government took control of Mogadishu but has struggled to extend its authority or contain the insurgency.
Ethiopian troops are scheduled to withdraw under a tentative peace deal signed by the government and some moderate Islamist opposition figures last month. Al-Shabab and other hardline militants have rejected that deal.
Some information for this report was provided by AP and Reuters.