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Friday, December 08, 2006

Fighting said breaking out near Somali govt base

MOGADISHU, Dec 8 (Reuters) - Fighting broke out on Friday between Islamist fighters and government troops backed by Ethiopian soldiers near the government base in Baidoa, a witness and top Islamist said.

The witness told Reuters he could see fighting going on in Safar Noolay, 30 km (19 miles) southwest of Baidoa along the defensive line the Islamists have set up to encircle roughly half of the only town the government controls.

"I see huge smoke clouds and I am hearing artillery fire and small guns exchanging fire," witness Adan Isak Ali, who said he was located about 3 km (1.5 miles) southwest of the fighting, told Reuters by telephone.

Ali told Reuters he saw Ethiopian and Somali troops heading in the direction of the Islamist defence line. There was no independent confirmation of the fighting or word of any casualties.

Earlier, Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, a top leader of the Somali Islamic Courts Council (SICC), told a crowd gathered in the capital, Mogadishu, after Friday prayers that he had just heard a report of an attack by the Ethiopians and government.

The government could not be reached for comment.

Ahmed placed the location in Dinsoor, located roughly 100 km (60 miles) southwest of Baidoa on the same road as Safar Nooley.

"The news reaching us from Dinsoor indicates that Ethiopians have attacked Dinsoor," Ahmed said.

The SICC has declared holy war on Ethiopia, which it says has invaded Somalia to prop up the interim government.

Ethiopia has consistently denied it has any soldiers, besides a few hundred military trainers, inside Somalia. But security experts estimate there are between 5,000 and 10,000 inside Somalia, along with heavy weapons and armoured vehicles.

Many fear that any conflict between the SICC, backed by Eritrea, and the interim government could erupt into a war that spreads across the Horn of Africa and possibly further south.
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