MOGADISHU, Somalia – The leader of Somalia's Islamic radicals urged Ethiopians Monday to revolt against their government, which he described as an oppressive regime led by an unpopular minority ethnic group.
Tensions between Ethiopia, which backs Somalia's weakened government, and the Islamic radical group who control much of the south of the country have been mounting in recent months. So far they have avoided any direct clashes, though their rhetoric on both sides has been fiery, raising fears of a conflict that could engulf the Horn of Africa region.
"I dare you to come and fight us. Do not just run," Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys said, directing his words at Ethiopia in an address before thousands of Somalis gathered in the capital, Mogadishu, to celebrate the end of the fasting month of Ramadan.
"We urge Ethiopian people, who are not part of this aggression against Somalia, to revolt against and remove the oppressive regime led by (Ethiopia Prime Minister) Meles Zenawi."
In other towns, Somalia's Islamic leaders made similar calls, threatening to drive Ethiopian forces from Baidoa, the only town the Somali government controls, some 155 miles northwest of Mogadishu.
Ethiopia, with almost half of its 77 million population Muslim, is fearful of a neighboring fundamentalist state. It has consistently denied its forces are in Somalia, but on Thursday Meles acknowledged that his troops were training Somali government forces.
Eritrea, which fought a border war with Ethiopia that ended in 2000, is accused of providing military support to the Islamic group.
Aweys comments came as Somali government troops withdrew from a strategic hilltop town Monday, a resident said. Government troops, backed by Ethiopian forces, took control of Bur Haqaba, 35 miles east of Baidoa, on Saturday.
"There was a preparation for war all night long but when we saw government troops pulling out the city at around 6:30 a.m., our fear of war subsided," traditional leader Abdullahi Malaq Kerow told The Associated Press. "Local militias fear that the pullout is just a tactical retreat by the government side, so they have not entered (the town) yet."
Somalia has not had an effective national government since 1991, when warlords overthrew dictator Mohamed Siad Barre and then turned on one another, throwing the country into anarchy.
The current government was formed in 2004 with U.N. help in hopes of restoring order after years of bloodshed. It has never asserted much authority, and the Islamic group, trying to fill the power vacuum, seized control of much southern Somalia in June. Its strict and often severe interpretation of Islam raises the specter of Afghanistan's ousted Taliban regime.