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Heavy Fighting Spreads in Somalia

In Somalia, heavy fighting has broken out between Islamists and interim government forces in several towns near the government's outpost of Baidoa. The fighting comes in the wake of an Islamist threat to launch a major attack if Ethiopian troops did not leave Somalia by Tuesday. VOA Correspondent Alisha Ryu in our East Africa Bureau in Nairobi has details.

The fighting on Wednesday flared in the towns of Bur Hakaba and Daynunay, where large numbers of Islamist fighters and government forces have been massing in recent weeks.

The two towns are just a few dozen kilometers from the seat of Somalia's internationally recognized-but-virtually powerless interim government in Baidoa. The towns make up the farthest point where Islamist forces have advanced along the road that links Baidoa to the capital Mogadishu 250 kilometers away.

Residents of Bur Hakaba and Daynunay report hearing rockets and heavy gunfire from both sides, but they say they do not know who started the fighting.

Late Tuesday, Islamists and government troops exchanged mortar fire in the town of Idale, 70 kilometers southwest of Baidoa, after a gunfight between reconnaissance units killed several fighters on both sides.

The clash occurred as an Islamist threat to attack Baidoa expired. Last week, the national security chairman of the Islamic Courts Union, Yusuf Inda'ade, said his forces would launch an assault on Baidoa by Tuesday, if neighboring Ethiopia did not pull its troops out of Somali territory.

Ethiopia, which views the Islamists as a threat to its national security, has been pouring political and military support to the interim government. It has recently acknowledged sending in several hundred military advisers to Baidoa.

But the Islamists insist that Addis Ababa has sent as many as 30,000 combat troops and has declared a holy war against them.

Sources in Baidoa and Mogadishu tell VOA that an unknown number of Ethiopian troops are fighting alongside the government troops in Bur Hakaba and Daynunay.

Speaking to a Somali reporter in the capital, national security chairman Inda'ade confidently predicted that the Islamists will take control of Baidoa, regardless of Ethiopian intervention.

Inda'ade says his forces will take Baidoa, whenever they feel like taking it. He says the assault did not occur on Tuesday because military preparations were still not complete. But Inda'ade says Baidoa will fall to the Islamists.

As fighting raged just outside of Baidoa, European Union Development and Aid Commissioner Louis Michel flew into the city Wednesday for talks with interim leaders. He is scheduled to visit Mogadishu on Friday for talks with the Islamists in a bid to revive peace talks that collapsed in November.

The Islamists seized power in Mogadishu six months ago and have moved rapidly across southern and central Somalia, threatening the authority of the interim government.

The United States accuses several top leaders of the Islamists of having ties with al-Qaida. The Bush administration says it opposes any outside military intervention in Somalia's brewing internal conflict.