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Somali Islamist Leader Declares Holy War on Ethiopia

Islamist leaders in control of Somalia's capital are declaring a "holy war" against Ethiopian forces that are reported to have entered Somalia to protect the internationally-backed, but weak interim government.

A hard-line leader of the Islamic group, Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, and his followers have vowed to wage a holy war, if Ethiopian forces do not leave the country immediately.

Somalia's interim government leaders have refused to confirm the presence of Ethiopian troops. Witness reports Thursday said Ethiopian forces had entered the town of Baidoa, where the interim government is based.

On Friday, the government's deputy information minister suggested that government troops were being mistaken for Ethiopian soldiers, because they are wearing uniforms donated by Ethiopia.

Tensions escalated this week, when militants loyal to the Islamic Courts, which have taken control of Mogadishu and much of southern Somalia, advanced toward Baidoa. Witnesses said they pulled back Thursday.

The move heightened fears that the Islamists would attack the town and attempt to unseat Somalia's internationally recognized but weak transitional federal government.

In an interview with VOA on Friday, Interim Deputy Prime Minister Ismel Hurreh made clear that the government would welcome Ethiopian intervention.

"If the Islamic courts are intent on destabilizing, then we will need some assistance from the international community, as well as our neighboring country," he said.

Islamic leaders have denied any intention of attacking the interim government, and say that the government exaggerated reports of their advance to create an excuse to invite Ethiopian forces into the country.

Islamic militias seized control of the capital Mogadishu from factional leaders in early June, and have extended their control to much of the south of the country.

Since then, the country has been rife with rumors of Ethiopian troop movements.

Largely Christian Ethiopia, which fought a bitter war with Somalia two decades ago, says that it will not permit the formation of Islamic theocracy on its doorstep and strongly backs the secular president of the interim government, Abdullahi Yusuf. In the 1990s, Ethiopia helped Yusuf defeat an Islamist militia led by Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys in the northern autonomous region of Puntland.

Speaking in New York on Friday, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan expressed concern over the escalating crisis, and urged the Somali parties to engage in dialogue.