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Witnesses Say Ethiopian Troops Enter Somali Government Town

Islamists in Somalia have threatened to wage a holy war against Ethiopian troops, who are believed to have crossed the border into Somalia. Media reports say a large number of Ethiopian troops are in the provincial town of Baidoa, where Somalia's Ethiopian-backed Transitional Federal Government is based.

The crisis began late Wednesday when Islamic militias advanced within 60 kilometers of Baidoa from their base in Mogadishu. The advance, to the town of Buurhakana, prompted Somali interim government leaders to issue warnings that the militias were preparing to attack Baidoa.

Islamic officials in Mogadishu say they had no intention of attacking the interim government. The Islamists say they merely wanted to extend religious law in the area and wanted to escort more than 100 government defectors back to Mogadishu.

The Islamists accuse government officials of exaggerating the truth of the advance as an excuse to invite Ethiopian troops into the country.

Ethiopia's Minister of Information Berhan Hailu has neither confirmed nor denied that troops from his country are in Somalia. But he told reporters in Addis Ababa that Ethiopia is prepared to defend the interim government from any attack.

Largely Christian Ethiopia is the main power in the Horn of Africa region. Its leaders have repeatedly said that they would not tolerate the establishment of an Islamic state on its doorstep.

Somalia's interim Deputy Prime Minister Ismel Hurreh tells VOA that Ethiopia's long-time rival Eritrea is partly to blame for the escalating crisis in the Horn. He says Eritrea is funding the Islamic militias, encouraging them to seize Somalia and draw Ethiopia into a potentially ruinous conflict.

"Eritrea is very well involved in this," he said. "Eritrea wants to have a proxy war. They want to use these Islamist people as a pressure point against Ethiopia and what they consider to be a more conservative middle of the ground government like the TFG."

Hurreh says his government has no plans to attend the second round of peace talks with Islamic leaders, which had been scheduled to resume Saturday in the Sudanese capital Khartoum.

"As far as we are concerned, they [must] renounce force as a tool for gaining ground," he said. "We are all Muslims. They do not have to teach us what Islam is. And if they believe in a very fundamentalist version of Islam, that is not what most Somalis believe in."

There are widespread fears that Ethiopian troop deployments in Somalia will lead to a wave of violence across the region.

The leader of the Islamic group, Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, says foreign troops, no matter who they are, will be fiercely opposed. Earlier this month, al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden vowed to send holy warriors to help Somalis fight against foreigners.

Washington has expressed concern over the latest developments and has again urged both sides to seek dialogue.

Somalia has been without a central government since dictator Mohamed Siad Barre, was overthrown in 1991. The country's Transitional Federal Government was cobbled together 19 months ago in neighboring Kenya, the 14th attempt to form a government.

While the interim government is recognized by the United Nations, it has little power and has been unable to base itself in the capital because of security fears.

The Islamists, who seized control of the capital, Mogadishu, from factional leaders in early June, have threatened the government's authority by extending its rule to much of the south of the country.