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Ethiopian tanks roll to Somali battlefront | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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BAIDOA, Somalia, (Reuters) – Ethiopian tanks rolled to the battlefront on Friday as Somali Islamists and pro-government troops pounded each other with artillery and rockets in a fourth day of clashes edging closer to all-out war.

The Islamists said they would send ground troops to attack en masse on Saturday, as opposed to fighting from a distance with heavy weapons as they have been doing so far. “Our troops have not started to attack. From tomorrow the attack will start,” Islamist deputy spokesman Ibrahim Shukri told a news conference.

Witnesses near the fighting on two fronts near the government’s encircled stronghold of Baidoa said they heard the rumble of armour before dawn. “I was awakened this morning by heavy sounds of tanks. I woke up and saw seven Ethiopian tanks heading towards Daynunay,” Baidoa resident Abdullahi Ali told Reuters. The Ethiopian government declined to comment.

If the tanks engage in the battle it would raise the stakes in what is already the most sustained combat so far in a fight many fear could mushroom across the Horn of Africa, sucking in rivals Eritrea and Ethiopia.

Farmer Mohamed Adan said he saw the tanks moving outside Baidoa: “There were nearly 20. I understand some have been sent towards Daynunay while others have gone towards Idaale.”

Daynunay is the government’s forward military base about 20 km (12 miles) southeast of Baidoa. Ethiopia has said it has military trainers there, but not combat troops.

The other front, Idaale, is 70 km (44 miles) southwest of Baidoa, a southern agricultural trading post which is the only town the government controls.

The Western-backed but largely ineffective government and the Somali Islamic Courts Council (SICC) say they have killed hundreds of each other’s troops in four days of fighting across the desolate, brushy flatlands around Baidoa. The figures could not be independently verified.

Fighting began late on Tuesday, as an SICC deadline for Ethiopian troops to leave Somalia or face a holy war passed. By Wednesday night, it was clear the European Union’s announcement the same day that the two sides had agreed to restart peace talks and stop fighting had begun to ring hollow.

The SICC has taken control of most of southern Somalia by dint of its military might and imposition of strict sharia law.

Washington and what it sees as its top counter-terrorism ally in the Horn of Africa, Ethiopia, say the SICC is led by an al Qaeda cell, which the military-religious movement denies.

The SICC says it has the popular support the government lacks, bringing law and order to a nation convulsed with anarchy since dictator Mohamed Siad Barre was ousted in 1991.

The SICC said Ethiopian troops were moving by air and ground toward Galkaayo, a strategic central Somali town held as a forward defense base by government-allied Puntland troops. “We hope fighting will simultaneously start there too. We call upon the Somalis to rise up and join in the jihad against our enemy Ethiopia,” SICC Secretary Ibrahim Suley told reporters.

Ethiopia and Somali President Abdullahi Yusuf, a Puntland native, are keen to keep the relatively stable, semi-autonomous Puntland region and its strategic ports out of SICC hands.