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Somali Troops, Islamist Fighters Continue to Clash


In Somalia, Islamist fighters and government troops continue to battle each other near the government stronghold of Baidoa, with each side claiming to have killed hundreds of troops of the other side's. Cathy Majtenyi reports for VOA from Nairobi.

Reports in the media, which could not be independently verified by VOA, quote witnesses as saying they have seen Ethiopian army tanks and helicopters moving near the town of Baidoa, home to Somalia's transitional government.

Islamist fighters were also reportedly making their way to Baidoa as hundreds of people fled the area to the capital Mogadishu.

Islamic and government troops - that many say are being backed by Ethiopia - have been clashing in locations outside of Baidoa for the fourth day running, exchanging artillery fire.

A freelance broadcast journalist based in Mogadishu, Mohammed Olad Hassan, tells VOA that a minister from the transitional government told him that government troops had killed 200 Islamist fighters and wounded 100.

Meanwhile, he says, Islamists Thursday said they have killed 200 Ethiopian soldiers.

"Each side is claiming to have the upper hand, and it's very difficult to find out the exact information on the ground because movements of civilians and non-military movements including journalists were restricted," he said. "So critical information is hard to come by from the front line."

Hassan says he attended an Islamic Courts Union press conference Friday where Islamists said they have defeated Ethiopian soldiers, but did not give details on the number of casualties inflicted.

At the press conference, says Hassan, Islamic officials said that, as of Friday, they vowed to attack Ethiopians wherever they are in the country, and chided the international community for ignoring events in Somalia.

For its part, Ethiopia has denied the presence of combat troops in Somalia to support the government, admitting to a small number of military advisors in Somalia there to train the government army.

Hassan says he has heard of very few civilian casualties in the fighting.

"During military build-up around the area, during weeks of military build-up, most of the residents around the front line fled from their homes expecting that the fighting could engulf at any time," he said. "That's why civilian casualties is very, very low."

Earlier this year, the Islamic Courts Union seized control of the capital and other areas before reaching a truce with the government

Negotiations between Somalia's transitional government and the Islamic Courts Union collapsed in Sudan on November 2.

Those talks were meant to finalize an interim peace accord that the two sides signed in September that, among other things, called for the creation of a joint national army and police force.

The Islamists said they would not continue the negotiations until all Ethiopian troops that are supporting the transitional government leave Somalia.

Ever since civil war broke out in 1991, militias loyal to clan and sub-clan-based factions have controlled different parts of the country, with no central authority to provide law and order and even basic services to the population.

A transitional Somali parliament was formed in Kenya more than a year ago following a peace process.