BAIDOA, Somalia – Somalia's president said Friday that peace talks with the country's Islamic movement are no longer an option because the group's leaders have declared war on his government.
"They are the ones who effectively closed the door to peace talks and they are the ones who are waging the war," Somali President Abdullahi Yusuf told The Associated Press from his office in Baidoa.
Tension has been mounting in recent weeks between Somalia's government, which has Western and U.N. recognition but little authority on the ground, and the Council of Islamic Courts, which controls most of southern Somalia. The Islamists have vowed to launch a holy war starting Tuesday unless Ethiopian troops supporting the government leave Somalia.
"The fighting can happen at any time now," Yusuf said, adding that his administration will not be the first to attack.
The Islamic courts have been steadily gaining power since June, raising concerns about an emerging Taliban-style regime. The United States accuses the group of having ties to al-Qaida, which it denies.
"Al Qaeda is opening up shop in Somalia," Yusuf warned. "This is a new chapter and part of the terror group's plan to wage war against the West."
Earlier Friday, Islamic leaders in the capital, Mogadishu, distributed sermons about holy war to be read at the city's mosques during prayers — the latest attempt to galvanize the nation as it slides toward war.
"The sermon concerns the holy war on Ethiopian troops inside Somalia," Islamic official Sheik Hussein Abdullahi Barre told the AP. He added, "What we want is that Friday's sermon should be concerned about jihad."
On Thursday, the State Department's senior official on Africa said the United States does not want an Ethiopian military buildup in Somalia, despite the growing strength of the Islamic movement.
"We have said repeatedly that the only solution to the crisis in Somalia is through dialogue," said Jendayi Frazer, the assistant secretary of state for African affairs.
Some news reports have suggested that the Bush administration is giving tacit support for an Ethiopian military intervention to support the government, which is confined to the western city of Baidoa.
But Frazer said the Bush administration is pushing for creation of an African force to train and protect the government but is opposed to military intervention by Somalia's neighbors, including Ethiopia, against the Islamic militants.
Meanwhile, witnesses along the Ethiopian border say troops are crossing into Somalia regularly. Ethiopia acknowledges sending military advisers here, but not a fighting force.