President joins Somali clashes

The Australian
by Mustafa Haji Abdinur in Mogadishu
SOMALIA'S faltering government and powerful Islamists have overnight exchanged artillery fire for the second day near the government seat as the deadly escalation pitched the country closer to all-out war.
After an overnight lull, rival forces resumed clashes in villages south of Baidoa, stronghold of the government that the Islamists have threatened to take, witnesses and officials said.
"The fighting has resumed and it is raging in the same area as yesterday," said Sheikh Osmail Addo, Islamic commander in the country's Bay region.
Commanders said the clashes erupted when a combined government-Ethiopian force ambushed the Islamists, sparking deadly artillery duels that later gave way to sporadic gunfire.
Sheikh Mohamed Ibrahim Bilal, another top Islamist, said the clashes were most intense in and around Safarnooles and Maddoy villages, about 75 km and 40 km respectively south of Baidoa, the only major town in the country still in government hands.
Witnesses spotted President Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed donning a military uniform aboard a pick-up truck mounted with machine guns in Baidoa, an unusual sight and indication of the seriousness of the latest escalation.
Both sides confirmed casualties, with the Islamists saying a total of 50 people had died - 30 government troops and 20 Islamists - but there was no independent confirmation.
The government army said it had lost troops in Friday's fighting, but declined to give a figure.
"We lost a lot of men," said commander Ibrahim Batari from Baidoa, about 250 km northwest of Mogadishu.
Rivals deployed small arms, heavy machine guns and rocket propelled grenades forcing hundreds of civilians to flee into the township.
"My village looks likes a ghost area ... massive military movement has scared people and that is why I decided to move with my children to Baidoa," said Sheikh Abdi Garre, an experience shared by many.
On Friday fighting erupted in the Islamist-held Dinsoor, 110 km south of Baidoa.
The government claimed strategic retreat as the Islamists pitched camp on positions east of the government seat.
In Baidoa, terrified residents said dozens of Ethiopian military trucks, carrying troops and hardware, were headed southwards to tackle the Islamists.
Islamists deployed hundreds of fighters to Burhakaba Saturday, about 50 km east of Baidoa, opening a new front for possible fighting.
"We will target everywhere Ethiopian forces are reported in Somalia," said Sheikh Mukhta Robow, the deputy defence chief for the Islamists.
The Islamists, who have declared a holy war on Ethiopia have stepped up military preparations after the UN Security Council passed a resolution authorising the deployment of about 8000 east African peacekeepers.
Radical clerics have vowed to kill any UN troops entering the country.
In addition, the Islamists banned traffic from Mogadishu to Baidoa in a bid to cut potential civilian casualties.
Mainly-Christian Ethiopia, with a large and potentially restive Muslim minority, has said it would help the government fend off attacks and is also wary of the rise on its border of the Islamists, some of whom are accused of links with Al-Qaeda terror network.
Addis Ababa has denied sending thousands of combat troops to Somalia, insisting it only deployed military trainers and advisors.
Many fear a full-scale war could erupt in Somalia and spread throughout the Horn of Africa, drawing in Ethiopia and its arch-foe Eritrea, which denies backing the Islamists, accused of links to Al-Qaeda network.
Somalia has lacked an effective government since the 1991 ousting of dictator Mohamed Siad Siad Barre and the two-year-old government has failed to exert control across the nation of 10 million people.

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