Fighting between Islamist insurgents and Ethiopian and Somali troops is escalating in some parts of south and central Somalia in defiance of a cease-fire agreement signed by the Somali government and some members of the opposition last month. But as VOA Correspondent Alisha Ryu reports from our East Africa Bureau in Nairobi, Islamists recently took over one strategic Somali town without firing a shot.
Witnesses in the Somali capital Mogadishu describe clashes late Tuesday as the worst they have seen in weeks. More than a dozen people in three districts were killed after Islamist insurgents attacked Somali, Ethiopian and African Union troop positions, sparking a two-hour firefight.
Islamist fighters also ambushed an Ethiopian army convoy in the Galgadud region as it was traveling to Mataban from the town of Gureel.
Residents in Mataban, about 450 kilometers north of Mogadishu, say as many as 37 people, mostly Ethiopian soldiers and insurgents, were killed in the attack.
The clashes occur a week before a deadline for the implementation of a truce agreement, signed by Somalia's Ethiopia-backed government and an Islamist-led opposition faction in Djibouti on June 9.
An army contingent arrived in Gureel last Saturday and was immediately attacked by Islamist fighters. The battle reportedly killed four people and wounded 10 others.
Both Mataban and Gureel are Islamist insurgent strongholds, particularly for the radical Shabab group. The United States believes the group has ties to al-Qaida. Its founder, Adan Hashi Ayro, was killed by a U.S. missile in the area in May.
Somali media reports that Ethiopian troops were deployed to Galgadud after they withdrew from the Hiran region to the south and allowed an Islamist militia to peacefully take control of the strategic regional capital Beletweyn near the Ethiopian-Somali border.
Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs Spokesman Wahide Belay refused comment on reports the Ethiopians may have pulled out because the Islamist militia that took over Beletweyn is allied with the principle signatory of the cease-fire deal, Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed.
"No, I cannot comment on the movement of our troops in Somalia," he said. "What I can say is what we have said earlier. We are totally behind the agreement in Djibouti. The agreement confirms what we used to say before. We want to get out of Somalia, as long as the political situation and the reconciliation process is going on and getting successful."
Many towns in Galgadud, on the other hand, are controlled by clan and religious leaders, who have rejected the peace deal and have vowed to continue the insurgency until all Ethiopian forces leave Somali soil.
In the past several months, Islamist guerrillas have steadily expanded their insurgency from Mogadishu to all regions of Somalia and have captured more than a dozen towns.
They have set up temporary administrations under Islamic law and have pledged to restore order and security.
In towns such as Jowhar in the Middle Shabelle region and Qansah-Dheere in the Bay region, locals say the Islamic Courts Union, ousted from power by Ethiopia-led troops in late 2006, are again in control.