MOGADISHU, Somalia, (AP) -Ethiopian fighter jets pounded several Somali towns held by a powerful Islamic militia, a sharp escalation in violence that threatens to engulf the volatile Horn of Africa in widespread violence.
Ethiopia confirmed the attacks, the first time it has acknowledged that its troops were fighting in Somalia, though witnesses have reported their presence for weeks.
The airstrikes hit the strategic town of Belet Weyne on the Ethiopian border and surrounding villages up to 12 miles away, said Sheik Mohamoud Ibrahim Suley, an official with Somalia’s Council of Islamic Courts. A resident of Belet Weyne — Ayanle Husein Abdi — said the strikes hit a strategic road and a recruiting center.
Ethiopia said it was acting to defend itself.
“After too much patience, the Ethiopian government has taken a self-defensive measure and has begun counterattacking the aggressive extremist forces,” said Solomon Abebe, Ethiopia’s foreign affairs spokesman.
Abdi said that the planes hit an Islamic center where the Islamic officials in the region enrolled volunteers who wanted to join the war. Another witness, Said Abukar Sahal, said the strikes were targeting the roads and defenses of the Islamic militia.
The Council of Islamic Courts has vowed to drive out troops from neighboring Ethiopia, a largely Christian nation that is providing military support to Somalia’s U.N.-backed government.
Somalia has not had an effective government since warlords overthrew longtime dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991, plunging the country into chaos. The Islamic courts have steadily gained power since June, raising concerns about an emerging Taliban-style regime. The U.S. accuses the group of having ties to al-Qaida, which it denies.
Somalia’s government spokesman, Abdirahman Dinari, said from Baidoa that his forces have “inflicted massive casualties,” although the claim could not be independently confirmed.
Last week, officials from the Somali government and the Islamic union said days of fighting killed hundreds of people.
The Ethiopian airstrikes on Sunday were the first against Somalia’s Islamic movement. Ethiopia and Somalia have fought two wars over their disputed border in the last 45 years. Islamic court leaders have repeatedly said they want to incorporate ethnic Somalis living in eastern Ethiopia, northeastern Kenya and Djibouti into a Greater Somalia.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has said his government has a legal and moral obligation to support and defend Somalia’s internationally recognized government. He has repeatedly accused the Islamic courts of backing ethnic Somali rebels fighting for independence from Ethiopia and has called such support an act of war.
As Sunday’s fighting wore on, the Islamic leadership in the capital, Mogadishu, began broadcasting patriotic songs about Somalia’s 1977 war with Ethiopia. Although the two countries view each other as enemies, Somali President Abdullahi Yusuf is a longtime ally of Ethiopia.
The militants, who want to govern Somalia according to Islamic law, invited foreign Muslims on Saturday to join their holy war against Ethiopian troops. Many fear the fighting could escalate into a regional battle.
“Muslims are brothers and help each other,” said Sheik Yusuf Indahaadde, national security chairman for the Council of Islamic Courts. “We have a right to call our brothers and sisters to help us in this holy war.”
The clashes could mean a major conflict in the Horn of Africa. Ethiopia, which has one of the largest armies in the region, and its bitter rival, Eritrea, could use Somalia as the ground for a proxy war. Eritrea backs the Islamists.
In Kismayo, a strategic seaport captured by Islamic militia in September, residents saw several foreign Arab fighters disembarking from ships this week.
Somali Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi vowed Saturday that his government will “defend the people it is responsible for and Somali sovereignty” and said the Islamic fighters should return to negotiations. Several rounds of talks, mediated by the Arab League, have failed to produce any lasting effect.
Thousands of Somalis have fled their homes as troops loyal to the two-year-old interim administration fought Islamic fighters who had advanced on Baidoa, about 140 miles northwest of Mogadishu. Islamic militiamen control Mogadishu along with most of southern Somalia.
Government officials said more than 600 Islamic fighters had been killed during four days of clashes. Islamic militiamen said they killed around 400 Ethiopians and government fighters. Neither claim could be independently confirmed.