Islamic Leader Declares Somalia in 'State of War'

Somalia is now in "a state of war," the country's Islamic leader said Thursday, despite an earlier pledge to return to peace talks with the government.

As shelling continued near the government's garrison town of Baidoa, Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys called for all Somalis to join the fight against neighboring Ethiopia.

"All Somalis should take part in this struggle against Ethiopia," he told The Associated Press. "If you cannot fight you can contribute in other ways to the effort," Aweys said by telephone.

Three days of clashes between Islamic fighters and government forces who are backed by Ethiopian troops have left more than 100 people dead.

Ethiopia denies its forces are involved in the clashes, but says it has deployed several hundred military trainers in support of the transitional government.

On Wednesday, Aweys told an EU envoy that he was willing to return to peace talks with the Somali transitional government. But on Thursday, he said "the country is in a state of war."

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In Ethiopia, the government said in a statement released late Wednesday that the Islamic group was warmongering and not interested in peace. "Ethiopia has exerted efforts as it will do so for the peaceful resolution of the problem in Somalia," the statement said.

In Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia which is controlled by the Islamic group, Muslim leaders said they had killed 70 government soldiers, the majority of them Ethiopians. One was an Ethiopian colonel, senior Islamic leader Sheik Mohamud Ibrahim Suley said. The Islamic group said they suffered seven deaths with 22 injured.

"The war is between Somalia and Ethiopia so the transitional government has to choose between Somalis and Ethiopia," Suley told reporters.

Somalia's deputy defense minister Salad Ali Jelle told reporters that 71 Islamic fighters had been killed and 221 injured so far during clashes in three locations near military training camps around the government garrison town of Baidoa.

Two of the bodies were foreign fighters. Three government troops were killed and seven injured, Jelle said.

Neither claim could be independently verified.

Separately, witnesses in the town of Bur Haqaba, which is controlled by the Islamic movement, reported hearing mortars, anti-aircraft missiles and rocket-propelled grenades being fired Thursday.

After returning from Somalia late Wednesday, EU envoy Louis Michel said skirmishes were likely to continue for now, but said both sides had broadly agreed to ease tensions, and he believed they were committed to negotiations.

He said the talks would be in Khartoum, the Sudanese capital where several rounds have been held with little progress. No date was given.

Foreign Minister Ismail Hurre said that while his government wanted talks, it did not believe its rivals did.

Michel said he had spoken Tuesday to Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. He said Meles supported his peace initiative, but provided no other details of their conversation.

He acknowledged hard-liners and moderates within the Islamic movement have at times differed, but said he believed all factions were behind Wednesday's agreement.

Clashes have erupted 15 kilometers (9 miles) from the government garrison town of Baidoa where the EU envoy met with Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi and President Abdullahi Yusuf.

As the clashes started, several hundred Ethiopian troops aboard 13 military trucks and with artillery support were deployed to strengthen government forces on the eastern side of the city, a government official said on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the information.

The interim government holds only a small area around the central town of Baidoa. The Islamic militiamen control the capital, Mogadishu, but have also fanned out across most of southern Somalia.

Somalia has not had an effective government since 1991.

The secular government, set up in 2004 and backed by the United Nations, has rejected religious rule for Somalia, while the Muslim leaders have insisted on an Islamic government. The U.N. believe as many as 8,000 Ethiopian troops may be in the country in support of the government while rival Eritrea has deployed 2,000 troops in support of the Islamic group. Both countries deny the charges.

Another concern has been the Islamic movement's alleged ties to international terrorists, something Islamic leaders have repeatedly denied.