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Skirmishes in Somalia follow agreement to resume peace talks

MOGADISHU, Somalia: Bodies lay in the streets and fighters pounded each other with heavy artillery and mortars for a third day Thursday as Somalia's Islamic leader announced the country was now at war, leaving a day-old peace initiative in tatters.

The Ethiopian-backed interim government fought for control of strategic areas close to its base with fighters from the rival Islamic movement.

The clashes threaten to spiral into a major conflict in this volatile region, sucking in Ethiopia and its bitter rival Eritrea. Analysts believe Ethiopia may soon raise the stakes by deploying attack helicopters in support of the government.

An Associated Press photographer saw 19 bodies of Islamic fighters in Moode Moode, a town 15 kilometers (9 miles) from the government garrison town of Baidoa, where fighting had taken place Wednesday.

Three Islamic fighters were captured. Aweys Hassan Ma'alim, 25, said he had been forced to fight by the Islamic movement. Another, Adan Abdullahi Mohammed, said he wanted to fight Ethiopians and "die for the sake of God in holy war."

Meanwhile Sheikh Ibrahim Shukri Abuu-Zeynab, a spokesman for the Islamic movement, said it had captured Idale, a town 60 kilometers (37 miles) southwest of Baidoa and scene of fighting on Tuesday, killing 200 Ethiopian troops. The claim could not be verified.

As shelling continued close to Baidoa, Islamic leader Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys called for all Somalis to join the fight against neighboring Ethiopia.

"All Somalis should take part in this struggle against Ethiopia," he told The Associated Press. "If you cannot fight you can contribute in other ways to the effort," Aweys said by telephone. Eritrea is accused of supporting the Islamic group.

The United Nations appealed for calm, saying fighting would prevent aid from reaching hundreds of thousands in dire need of help because of hunger and flooding.

Heavy fighting broke out as an ultimatum for Ethiopian troops to leave the country expired. Three days of clashes between the Islamic fighters and government forces, newly trained by Ethiopian troops, have left more than 100 people dead.

Ethiopia denies its forces are involved in the clashes, but says it has deployed several hundred military trainers in support of the transitional government.

On Wednesday, Aweys told an EU envoy that he was willing to return to peace talks with the Somali transitional government.

But on Thursday, he said, "The country is in a state of war."

In Ethiopia, the government said in a statement released late Wednesday that the Islamic group was warmongering and not interested in peace. "Ethiopia has exerted efforts as it will do so for the peaceful resolution of the problem in Somalia," the statement said.

EU envoy Louis Michel, in response to a question about Eritrea and Ethiopia's involvement, had said Wednesday: "Somalia is suffering because some are using Somalia as a battlefield for other issues." Both countries fought an unresolved border war in 1998.

Somalia's deputy defense minister Salad Ali Jelle told reporters that 71 Islamic fighters had been killed and 221 injured so far during clashes in three locations near military training camps around the government garrison town of Baidoa.

Three government troops were killed and seven injured, Jelle said.

The claim could not be independently verified.

Separately, witnesses in the town of Bur Haqaba, which is controlled by the Islamic movement, reported hearing mortars, anti-aircraft missiles and rocket-propelled grenades being fired Thursday.

After returning from Somalia late Wednesday, Michel said skirmishes were likely to continue for now, but said both sides had broadly agreed to ease tensions, and he believed they were committed to negotiations.

He said the talks would be in Khartoum, the Sudanese capital where several rounds have been held with little progress. No date was given.

The interim government holds only a small area around the central town of Baidoa. The Islamic militiamen control the capital, Mogadishu, but have also fanned out across most of southern Somalia.

Somalia has not had an effective government since 1991.


Associated Press writers Mohamed Olad Hassan and Mohamed Sheik Nor contributed to this report.

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