KISMAYO, Somalia – Somalia's Islamic radicals claimed Tuesday they had captured an Ethiopian officer after heavy fighting against pro-government militia in which 43 were killed.
The wounded soldier was seized after 26 hours of fighting between Islamic fighters and militia loyal to Somalia's defense minister, said Islamic movement spokesman Sheik Shukri Abraham.
Ethiopian officials were not immediately available for comment.
Ethiopia and Somalia's governments had initially denied the presence of Ethiopian troops in the country, but Ethiopia's prime minister recently acknowledged he had sent troops. He said there were only a few military trainers.
Tensions between Ethiopia, which backs Somalia's weak government, and the Islamic radical group that controls much of southern Somalia have been mounting in recent months.
So far they have avoided any direct clashes, though the rhetoric on both sides has been fiery, raising fears of a conflict that could engulf the entire Horn of Africa region.
The fighting between the rival militias, which broke out late Sunday and ended late Monday, occurred in the Islamic base of Bu'aale, 100 miles south of the government base of Baidoa and where Ethiopian trainers are believed to be based.
The town briefly fell to forces loyal to Defense Minister Col. Barre "Hirale" Aden Shire during the fighting, but was recaptured by Islamic militia, Abraham told journalists.
He said 43 pro-government fighters were killed while three Islamic militia also died.
"We have defeated the militia after 26 hours fighting," he said. The Islamic forces also captured six pickup trucks mounted with machine guns and known locally as "technicals."
"We have captured an Ethiopian officer and he is now being held under guard in one of our compounds," he said at press conference in the southern strategic seaport of Kismayo. The Ethiopian soldier will be shown to the media in the coming days, Abraham added.
Officials for Shire were not immediately available for comment.
Somali government officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media, say about 6,000 Ethiopian troops are in the country or encamped on the 990 miles border.
The issue is sensitive because Ethiopia and Somalia are traditional rivals. Ethiopia, with almost half of its 77 million population Muslim, fears fundamentalism in its neighbor.
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.
President Abdullahi Yusuf's government was formed in 2004 with U.N. help in hopes of restoring order after years of bloodshed.