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Ethiopian Troops Advance Towards Somali Capital


Ethiopian troops Tuesday were heading towards the Somali capital as Islamist fighters retreated from the front line following Monday's bombing of two airports by Ethiopian forces. Ethiopian jets Tuesday also fired missiles at retreating Islamist fighters. Cathy Majtenyi reports for VOA from Nairobi.

Somalia's ambassador to Ethiopia Abdikarin Farah was quoted in media reports as saying that Ethiopian troops were less than 100 kilometers away from Mogadishu and could possibly take the city within 48 hours.

The secretary-general of the National Union of Somali Journalists, Omar Faruk Osman, tells VOA he has heard that the Ethiopian troops were on their way to the capital, and that jets had fired upon Islamist fighters retreating from the front line.

"There is a fear that they may come to Mogadishu by tonight [Tuesday]. There is very high tension here in Mogadishu - people are fearing that," he said. "There was another air raid today in the Lower Shabelle Region by the Ethiopian war planes."

The air raid Osman was referring to occurred at Leego, a location just east of Burhakaba, on Tuesday as Islamic fighters were retreating from two front line locations. Several people were reportedly killed during the air raid.

A top official in the Islamic Courts Union, Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys, confirmed to VOA that his fighters were leaving the front.

"They [Ethiopian forces] fire, they're fighting, and we are retreating," he said.

Aweys would not go into any more details about the Islamists' plan. Other Islamic Courts Union officials are quoted in media reports as saying that the retreat is temporary and signals a change in military tactics in which the Islamists plan to wage what they call a "long-lasting war" with Ethiopia.

On Monday, Ethiopian jets dropped bombs on the airports of Mogadishu and Balidogle.

One day before, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said that his country was at war with the Somali Islamists because the Islamists had declared a war on Ethiopia.

The air raids top a week of heavy skirmishes between Islamic fighters and Ethiopian-backed government troops around the town of Baidoa, the seat of the weak transitional government, with hundreds of people on both sides reportedly killed.

The fighting started after the passing of a deadline the Islamists set to order Ethiopian troops to leave Somalia or else face war. Until very recently, Ethiopian authorities have denied the existence of combat troops in Somalia, only that they were training Somali government troops.

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.