Heavy fighting broke out in central Somalia a day after the transitional government rejected a peace initiative with the country's Islamic movement, officials said.
Islamic militia captured the town of Bandiradley on Sunday, after claiming they came under attack from pro-government militia backed by Ethiopian troops near the border of the semiautonomous region of Puntland, one of the few areas still outside their control. "The fighting is continuing and we are pursuing Puntland troops," Mohamed Mahmud Agaweyne, spokesman for the Islamic group in central Somalia, told The Associated Press by telephone. Sa'id Abdirahman Dakaweyne, a colonel with the Puntland militia, also confirmed the fighting.
Two Islamic fighters were killed, Islamic officials said. Government officials declined to say if any of their militia were killed. Unconfirmed reports said three local residents were also killed.
Neither side would comment the sizes of forces involved. Agaweyne said, however, that the Islamic fighters had captured two tanks and 11 pickup trucks mounted with machine guns, known locally as "technicals."
Islamic forces said the tanks had Ethiopian markings, and that militia loyal to secular warlord Abdi Awale Qaybdiid were backing the Puntland troops in fighting around the small town of Bandiradley, home mainly to around 2,0000 people and some 700 kilometers (430 miles) north of the capital, Mogadishu. Ethiopian officials were not immediately available for comment. Puntland officials said they had put their troops on full alert. Sporadic skirmishes have broken out in central Somalia since May, when the Islamic movement took Jowhar, a large town and began extending north toward Puntland, which has close ties to Ethiopia and opposes the spread of the Islamic forces.
Fears are mounting that a war in Somalia could engulf the region. Several peace initiatives have failed to take hold with both the transitional government and Islamic movement trading accusations over who is to blame for the deadlock.
A peace deal agreed on Friday by a powerful but renegade government lawmaker and the country's Islamic movement was rejected 24 hours later by the interim administration, which said it was done without their approval.
Experts also warn Somalia could become a proxy battleground for neighboring Ethiopia and Eritrea, which broke away from Ethiopia in a 1961-91 civil war and fought another 1998-2000 border war with its rival. Eritrea supports the Islamic militia, while Ethiopia backs the interim government.
A confidential UN report obtained recently by The Associated Press said 6,000-8,000 Ethiopian troops were in Somalia or along the border. It also said 2,000 soldiers from Eritrea were inside Somalia. Eritrea denies having any troops in Somalia, while Ethiopia insists it has sent only a few hundred advisers.
Somalia has not had an effective government since 1991, when warlords overthrew a dictator and then turned on one another. The government was formed with the help of the UN two years ago, but it has failed to assert any real control outside Baidoa. The Islamic courts, meanwhile, have been rising since June and now control most of the country's south.
Late last week, the US Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, warned that extremists in Somalia were planning suicide attacks in Kenya and Ethiopia. As of Monday, all flights to Somalia from Kenya will be suspended due to security reasons, government spokesman Alfred Mutua said.