Fighting near Baidoa continues for a third day.
By Mohamed Olad Hassan, AP Writer
MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP) – Rival Somali forces fought for a third straight day Thursday despite an EU envoy getting both the government and an Islamic movement to agree to resume peace talks.
Shelling continued around the headquarters of the Ethiopian-backed transitional government as the rival sides claimed more than a hundred troops had been killed during three days of heavy fighting.
Somalia’s deputy defence 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.
Two of the bodies were foreign fighters. Three government troops were killed and seven injured, Jelle said.
In Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia which is controlled by the Islamic group, Muslim leaders said they had killed 70 government soldiers, the majority of them Ethiopian. One was an Ethiopian colonel, senior Islamic leader Sheik Mohamud Ibrahim Suley said. The Islamic group said they suffered seven deaths with 22 injured.
“The war is between Somalia and Ethiopia so the transitional government has to choose between Somalis and Ethiopia,” Suley told reporters.
Neither claim could be independently verified.
Despite the clashes, both sides insist they are still open to peace talks.
“We are hearing the echoes of the mortar fires, anti-aircraft missiles and rocket-propelled grenades,” said Ahmed Siyad Abdulle, a businessmen in Bur Haqaba, which is controlled by the Islamic movement who drove to the front to deliver medicines.
After returning from Somalia late Wednesday, EU envoy Louis Michel said such 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.
Foreign Minister Ismail Hurre said that while his government wanted talks, it did not believe its rivals did.
Leaders of the Islamic movement said they were willing to attend without conditions. The Islamic movement had previously said it would not attend talks until Ethiopian troops backing the government withdrew from the country. While Ethiopia backs the government, its traditional rival Eritrea backs the Islamic movement.
Michel said he had spoken Tuesday to Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. He said Meles supported his peace initiative, but provided no other details of their conversation.
He acknowledged hardliners and moderates within the Islamic movement have at times differed, but said he believed all factions were behind Wednesday’s agreement.
Islamic leader Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys played down fighting that had erupted earlier in the day.
Clashes erupted 15 kilometres from the government garrison town of Baidoa where the EU envoy was meeting with Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi and President Abdullahi Yusuf.
The Islamic group issued an ultimatum Tuesday for Ethiopian troops backing the transitional government to leave or face a major attack.
As the clashes started, several hundred Ethiopian troops aboard 13 military trucks and with artillery support were deployed to strengthen government forces on the eastern side of the city, a government official said on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the information.
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.
The secular government, set up in 2004 and backed by the United Nations, has rejected religious rule for Somalia, while the Muslim leaders have insisted on an Islamic government. The UN believe as many as 8,000 Ethiopian troops may be in the country in support of the government while rival Eritrea has deployed 2,000 troops in support of the Islamic group. Both countries deny the charges.
Another concern has been the Islamic movement’s alleged ties to international terrorists, something Islamic leaders have repeatedly denied.
Despite the agreement to return to peace talks, the Islamic military chief promised late Wednesday to continue his assault against Ethiopian troops and the government.