MOGADISHU, Somalia – A top official in Somalia's Islamic militia said Wednesday his forces will soon seize the base of the country's weak interim government, a move that would give radical militants uncontested authority over much of the country.
The government, which is internationally recognized but wields no real power outside its base in Baidoa, was on "high alert," said Deputy Information Minister Salad Ali Jelle.
The Islamic militia seized Mogadishu last month and installed strict religious courts, sparking fears of a Taliban-style regime. The U.S. has accused the militia of links to Al Qaeda that include sheltering suspects in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
On Wednesday, more than 200 Islamic fighters seized the town of Bur Haqaba and were continuing toward Baidoa, 37 miles away, witnesses said. The military movement came one day after the government started recruiting its own soldiers in central Somalia.
"Nothing will stop us from going into Baidoa," said Sheik Muqtar Robow, deputy defense chief for the Islamic group. He gave no timetable for an attack, but said more than 130 fighters who were loyal to President Abdullahi Yusuf had defected to the Islamists' side.
"I call on remnants of Yusuf's clan forces to leave Baidoa peacefully," Robow said. "Anyone who wants to leave will not be harmed."
Another Islamic official denied fighters were planning to seize Baidoa, offering a different explanation for why the Islamists were spotted on the outskirts of the government seat.
"Our aim of going to the region is to convince people in the region to implement Islamic law and establish Islamic courts," said Mohamed Ibrahim Bilal, head of the militia fighters who seized control of Bur Haqaba.
Wednesday's developments place in serious doubt the resumption of the peace talks scheduled to begin Saturday in Khartoum, Sudan, a month after the two sides agreed to stop all military action. The government agreed to resume talks under pressure from foreign governments that are pushing for a unified administration in Somalia.
"This is a provocation by the Islamic courts and a serious violation of the Khartoum agreement," said Omar Jamal, executive director of the Somali Justice Advocacy Center in St. Paul, Minnesota. "The fact is that the government is weak and cannot defend itself and we call for the dialogue to continue."
The militia's movement toward Baidoa also prompted a swift response by neighboring Ethiopia, which said it was prepared to invade Somalia to defend the government against the militia.
"We have the responsibility to defend the border and the Somali government. We will crush them," Ethiopia's Minister of Information Berhan Hailu told The Associated Press.
Somalia invaded Ethiopia in 1978 in an attempt to grab land occupied by ethnic Somalis. Since then, Ethiopia has attempted to influence Somali politics to prevent another invasion. Ethiopia sent troops into Somalia in 1993 and 1996 to crush Islamic militants attempting to establish a religious government.
Yusuf is allied with Ethiopia and has asked for its support. Hundreds of Ethiopian troops have been spotted along the countries' border in recent weeks — which the Islamic militia has repeatedly denounced.
The Islamic militia wrested Mogadishu from a secular alliance of warlords last month, bringing weeks of relative calm to a capital that has seen little more than chaos since the last effective central government was overthrown in 1991.
But the militia has shown an increasingly radical streak, cracking down on purportedly non-Islamic activities, such as a World Cup screening and a wedding with live music. It also replaced its moderate main leader with Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys, whom the U.S. has linked to al-Qaida. Aweys denies the allegations.
On Tuesday, militiamen with assault rifles raided movie halls and arrested women and men who had paid to watch videos. Those arrested "will be rehabilitated and then we will release them after they are told the disadvantages of watching such films and what Islam says about watching such films," said Moalin Shire, an official of the Islamic court.
Witnesses said about 60 people were arrested during the raids in the capital's Sinay neighborhood. But Sheik Dahir Shiekhow Farah, chairman of the Islamic court in Sinay, said his fighters detained only 14 and sentence them to punishments of up to 24 hours in jail.
If the Islamic militia seizes Baidoa, it will control most of this Horn of Africa nation. One exception would be the breakaway republic of Somaliland, which set up its own administration after Somalia descended into anarchy in the early 1990s.