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Sunday, October 22, 2006

Islamist forces gather as Somalis prepare to flee

LEGO, Somalia, Oct 22 (Reuters) - Heavily armed Islamist fighters gathered near a key southern Somali town on Sunday a day after their allies were chased out by government troops, sending many residents fleeing in fear of an all-out attack

The government's seizure of Bur Hakaba represented a rare strike back against the newly powerful Islamists by the chaotic country's fragile Western-backed interim administration.

But it prompted hundreds of Islamists to converge on the nearby town of Lego, vowing to attack government forces they said were backed by Ethiopian troops if they did not withdraw.

"The Ethiopians have attacked Bur Hakaba and if they don't leave we will attack them," the Islamists' commander Sheikh Yusuf Mohamed Siad told Reuters, dressed in military fatigues.

"Ethiopia and its allies are against the peace we have brought to Somalia after 16 years of unrest," he said as Islamist battlewagons -- trucks mounted with heavy machine guns and anti-aircraft rockets -- rumbled through Lego.

"If these attacks continue we will ask other Islamic nations to help us," he said. The Islamists have declared holy war on Ethiopia, which has denounced them as terrorists.

The rise of the Islamists, who control much of the south after seizing the capital Mogadishu from U.S.-backed warlords in June, threatens the government's attempts to reimpose central rule on a country in chaos since the 1991 ouster of a dictator.


Sunday's stand-off was the closest they have come close to a full-scale confrontation, which diplomats fear could trigger a regional war across the Horn of Africa, already one of the world's poorest regions due to conflict and its harsh climate.

Somalia's interim government has said its forces will not leave Bur Hakaba and has repeatedly denied having Ethiopian help, even though residents say Addis Ababa has sent thousands of troops over the border to support the weak administration.

Strategic Bur Hakaba was always a potential flashpoint because it had put the Islamists within 30 km (20 miles) of the government's base in the provincial town Baidoa.

On Sunday, Islamist forces were said to have advanced from Lego to within 15 km of Bur Hakaba, but there were no reports of fresh fighting.

Many residents of Bur Hakaba fled the town for surrounding villages fearing an all-out attack by the Islamists, and many in Lego said they were considering following suit.

"The whole town is worried and we don't know what direction we will flee when this war breaks out," said businessman Abdulkadir Nuur.

One resident of Bur Hakaba contacted by telephone said the town was quiet but tense, and that most shops had stayed shut.

"Some resident have fled towards the neighbouring villages for fear of stray missiles and bullets once fighting starts," Ali Iman told Reuters. "There is a very highly possibility of a clash. The troops are facing off." (Additional reporting by Guled Mohamed in Mogadishu)
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