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Ethiopian, Somali Government Forces Continue Advances Against Islamist Troops

After a week of intense fighting to recapture territory from Islamists in Somalia, Ethiopian troops and forces loyal to the Somali interim government have regained the key town of Jowhar and have moved within 30 kilometers of the Islamist-held capital of Mogadishu. VOA Correspondent Alisha Ryu in our East Africa Bureau in Nairobi has details.

Early Wednesday, residents in Jowhar say they saw Somali factional leader Mohamed Dheere lead government soldiers, backed by Ethiopian troops, into the town, located 90 kilometers north of the Islamist-held capital of Mogadishu.

In a telephone interview with VOA, Dheere said the battle for Jowhar was intense, but casualties were light on both sides.

He says the battle began shortly before noon on Tuesday and ended at dawn, when his troops successfully drove out about 1,000 Islamist fighters from Jowhar.

The factional leader ruled Jowhar before the town fell to Islamist forces nearly seven months ago. Dheere says his forces are now ready to move toward Mogadishu and are preparing for a possible Islamist counter-attack in the town of Balad, just 30 kilometers north of the capital.

He says Islamist fighters who fled Jowhar are regrouping outside of Balad. He says his forces are expecting the Islamists to carry out hit-and-run attacks against them because the Islamists have little chance of gaining ground against the government's superior firepower.

That firepower, including air strikes, is being provided by neighboring Ethiopia, which is believed to have sent thousands of troops to Somalia to support and protect the country's U.N.-recognized-but-virtually powerless government headquartered in the town of Baidoa.

The Islamists, who seized Mogadishu in June and controlled large parts of southern Somalia until a week ago, have declared a holy war on Ethiopian troops. Many Somalis resent Ethiopian intervention because the two countries have fought major wars over their disputed border since the early 1960s.

But Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi says his country has been forced to act because the Islamist movement is being led by extremists who are determined to incorporate parts of Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Kenya into a greater Somalia and unite the region under strict religious rule.

The Islamists deny charges that their leaders are extremists with ties to terrorist groups. But several top Islamist military leaders are believed to have received terrorist training in Afghanistan, and the Islamists have sizable numbers of foreign fighters among the rank and file of their militias.

Analysts warn that the Ethiopian-backed battle for control of Somalia risks the threat of Islamists using terrorist tactics, including suicide bombings in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa.

Somali journalist Mohamed Olad Hassan in Mogadishu says Islamist leaders have warned Somali citizens to prepare for a long war with Ethiopia.

"I spoke to senior Islamist Court official called Sheikh Ibrahim Sheikh Mohamuud Suleh," he said. "He says they have started to send troops in different directions in Somalia to target the enemy randomly and ambush them everywhere."

Ethiopian leader Meles Zenawi says his country is only interested in curbing the Islamists' ambitions for territorial conquest, not to wipe out the movement.

Meles says his troops will leave Somalia as soon as Islamist forces are no longer a threat to the interim government.