KISMAYO, Somalia – Islamic radicals in Somalia seized another pro-government town, officials said Thursday, just days ahead of peace talks aimed at preventing a bloody clash.
Later Thursday the government's Deputy Defense Minister Salad Ali Jelle claimed three lawmakers were kidnapped by Islamic militia, 19 miles outside Baidoa.
"If they don't release them soon, the government will take action to free them," he told journalists.
They were driving from the capital, Mogadishu, to Baidoa when they were allegedly seized.
Islamic movement officials said they had no information on the abductions but said they would investigate. Sheikh Abdirahim Ali Mudey, the spokesman for the Islamic group, said the government was "bent on sabotaging" relations with lawmakers who often come to the capital.
Sakow was captured late Wednesday from the government's Defense Minister Col. Barre "Hirale" Aden Shire without a shot being fired, Islamic militia said.
Fears are mounting that a war could erupt after witnesses saw government forces backed by Ethiopian troops digging trenches outside Baidoa Wednesday. But both sides could simply be positioning themselves ahead of Monday's peace talks in Khartoum, Sudan.
The government's information minister, Ali Ahmed Jama, said they will send negotiators to Khartoum.
"Our government is for reconciliation," he told journalists.
The Islamic group said it would also attend the talks and pledged not to attack Baidoa but would continue its advance into other areas.
"We are going to the talks and we don't want to attack Baidoa now because of a great respect we have for the previous agreements with the government," Mudey, the spokesman for the Islamic group, told The Associated Press by telephone.
Thousands of Somali refugees have fled across the border into neighboring Kenya, which has put its forces on alert. The international community has called for restraint by both sides and urged the Islamic forces to halt their continued advance.
Fuel supplies to Baidoa have been cut by the Islamic forces, while a senior official told local radio they were preparing for an attack on the town.
Over the past five months Islamic radicals have seized control of much of southern Somalia. The Islamic group has also recruited 2,000 fighters in recent weeks through training camps it has established, Islamic officials said.
The government forces have taken defensive positions 11 miles outside Baidoa. Islamic militiamen have moved within the past 24 hours to Moode Moode, 12 miles outside Baidoa, Gedow Awale Golade, a businessmen in the region said.
Ethiopia and the transitional government have denied that there are Ethiopian troops in the country, only saying that Somalia's western neighbor has sent military trainers to help the government form a national army. The issue is sensitive because the two countries are traditional rivals. Ethiopia, with almost half of its 77 million population Muslim, fears fundamentalism in its neighbor.
However, 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 mile porous border.
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 transitional government was formed in 2004 with U.N. help in hopes of restoring order after years of bloodshed in Somalia, but it has been unable to assert its authority beyond Baidoa.