Story Highlights• NEW: Ethiopian, Somali troops force Islamists to retreat near Jowhar
• Islamists fight with artillery, mortars and heavy machine guns
• Experts fear conflict could engulf the region
• Ethiopian PM: Forces have completed "about half their mission"
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MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP) -- Ethiopian and Somali government troops on Wednesday entered the strategic city of Jowhar, the last major town on the northern road to the capital, routing Islamic militiamen and forcing them to retreat, residents said.
A former warlord, who ruled Jowhar before it was captured by the Council of Islamic Courts in June, led the Somali government troops as they drove into the city, a resident said.
"Ethiopian troops and Mohammed Dhere have entered the city," said Abshir Ali Gabre.
Earlier, the Islamic fighters used irrigation canals as fortifications while they fought with artillery, mortars and heavy machine guns to defend the road to the capital, witnesses said.
The militia, which wants to rule Somalia according to Islamic law, stopped what their leaders called a tactical retreat in the village of Jimbale, 140 kilometers (87 miles) north of Mogadishu. They were defending Jowhar, residents said.
"The fighting has started, the two sides are using heavy weapons we have never heard before," Naimo Abdi Aden said by telephone. (Watch why some experts fear a bloodbath in Mogadishu )
Hundreds of people began fleeing Jowhar on Wednesday, anticipating major fighting, but others seemed resigned to it after suffering from drought and flooding over the last two years.
"We do not know where to escape, we are already suffering from floods, hunger and disease," said Abdale Haji Ali from Jowhar. "We are awaiting death."
Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said he had been given unconfirmed reports that as many as 1,000 people had died and 3,000 were wounded.
"Some of them are Somalis, but a very significant proportion of them are not Somalis," Meles told reporters Tuesday in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, referring to foreign Islamic radicals who have reportedly joined the fighting.
The International Committee of the Red Cross reported 850 people injured at hospitals supported by the relief agency, but had no figure for fatalities.
Meles said his forces, which entered Somalia in large numbers Saturday, had completed about half their mission.
He said there are only 3,000 to 4,000 Ethiopian troops in Somalia -- "but no more."
Ethiopia sent fighter jets across the border Sunday to help Somalia's U.N.-recognized government push back the Islamists. Ethiopia bombed the country's two main airports and helped government forces capture several villages.
Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, a senior leader of the Islamic group, said he asked his troops to tactically retreat in the face of superior Ethiopian firepower.
"The war is entering a new phase," Ahmed said from Mogadishu. "We will fight Ethiopia for a long, long time and we expect the war to go everyplace."
Ahmed declined to elaborate, but some Islamic leaders have threatened a guerrilla war to include suicide bombings in Addis Ababa. He also accused Ethiopian troops of massacring 50 civilians in the central town of Cadado.
At the United Nations on Tuesday, Francois Lonseny Fall, the U.N. secretary-general's special representative to Somalia, told an emergency meeting of the council on Tuesday that fighting has expanded across a 400-kilometer (250-mile) wide area, forcing the U.N. to evacuate and halt assistance to two million people in the south and central regions affected by the conflict and recent floods.
"Unless a political settlement is reached through negotiations," Fall said, "Somalia, I am afraid, will face a period of deepening conflict and heightened instability, which would be disastrous for the long-suffering people of Somalia, and could also have serious consequences for the entire region."
The security council failed to agree on a statement and decided to meet again on Wednesday. (Full story)
While the Islamic militias have been retreating, they could switch to hit-and-run tactics the government and Ethiopian troops will have difficulty defending against. Many fear a guerrilla war could drag on and leave thousands dead.
Meles has privately threatened for months to send troops into Somalia to fight terrorists, defend Ethiopian interests and prop up the besieged government, which has a very small military force.
He has also said he aims to severely damage the courts' military capabilities and allow both sides to return to peace talks on an even footing, but would not send troops into Mogadishu. Instead, he said, Somali forces would encircle the city to contain the Islamists.
If he sticks to his plan, the transitional government and the Islamic courts would take peace talks more seriously because neither side would have the upper hand militarily.
Any attempt by the government or Ethiopia to enter Mogadishu would likely end in a disaster similar to the U.S. intervention to create a Somali government in 1992. That U.N.-sponsored mission ended in 1993, when militiamen shot down a U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopter and 18 servicemen were killed in a subsequent battle made famous in the book and movie "Black Hawk Down."
What is unclear is how clan politics, which have traditionally dominated Somali society, will shift with the Islamic movement's changing fortunes. Clan elders tend to take the victor's side in the interest of minimizing violence in their villages. The 11 courts that make up the Islamic council are based on clan, vary widely in their interpretation of Islamic law and do not always get along.
Somalia has not had an effective government since warlords overthrew longtime dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991, pushing the country into anarchy. Two years ago, the United Nations helped set up an interim government for the arid, impoverished nation on the Horn of Africa.
Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
Transitional government soldiers patrol the streets of Burhakaba, Somalia.