MOGADISHU, Somalia – The two planes were coming in low and fast, headed straight for the airport and getting closer by the second.
Ali Haji Ahmed, a firefighter at Mogadishu International Airport, thought the Russian-made jets were coming in for a landing. Instead, they released a barrage of firepower before screaming off into the midmorning sky.
"The planes began to strike us, they dropped bombs," said Ahmed, who escaped injury.
Monday's attack by Ethiopian fighter jets was the first direct attack on the city, which serves as the headquarters of an Islamic movement attempting to wrest power from Somalia's internationally recognized government. Airstrikes also hit Baledogle Airport outside Mogadishu.
"We heard the sound of the jets and then they pounded," said Abdi Mudey, a soldier with Somalia's Council of Islamic Courts, which has seized control of the capital and much of southern Somalia since June.
The bombing of the airports and capture of three villages and a strategic border town gave the government crucial military aid in its struggle against the powerful Islamic militia.
Somalia has not had an effective government since warlords overthrew longtime dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991, pushing the country into anarchy. Two years ago, the United Nations helped set up a central government for the arid, impoverished nation on the Horn of Africa.
But the government has not been able to extend its influence outside the city of Baidoa, where it is headquartered, about 140 miles northeast of Mogadishu. The country was largely under the control of warlords until this past summer, when the Islamic militia movement pushed them aside.
Experts fear the conflict in Somalia could engulf the region. A recent U.N. report said 10 countries have been supplying arms and equipment to both sides of the conflict, using Somalia as a proxy battlefield. Some analysts also fear that the courts movement hopes to make Somalia a third front, after Afghanistan and Iraq, in militant Islam's war against the West.
The Islamic group's often severe interpretation of Islam is reminiscent, to some, of Afghanistan's Taliban regime — ousted by a U.S.-led campaign in 2001 for harboring Osama bin Laden. The U.S. government says four al-Qaida leaders, believed to be behind the 1998 bombing of the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, are now leaders in the Islamic militia.
Militia forces had surrounded Somali government forces in Baidoa, but Ethiopian-backed government troops appeared to take the initiative on Monday.
Pro-government forces drove Islamic fighters out of the key border town of Belet Weyne, then headed south in pursuit of fleeing militiamen, a Somali officer said. Government troops were enforcing a curfew of 3 p.m. to 6 a.m.
"Anyone who has a gun but is not wearing a government uniform will be targeted as a terrorist," said Aden Garase, a government soldier who was put in charge of Belet Weyne.
On Ethiopian television Monday night, the defense ministry said troops would move toward the city of Jowhar, about 55 miles from Mogadishu. Later, Ethiopia made a push in that direction, capturing the villages of Bandiradley, Adadow and Galinsor, according Yusuf Ahmed Ali, a businessman in Adadow.
No reliable casualty reports were immediately available; an Associated Press reporter who arrived shortly after the airstrike in Mogadishu saw a wounded woman being taken away.
As its military forces advanced, Somalia's government Monday also sought to seal its borders in order to prevent foreign Islamic militants from joining the Islamic courts forces.
Residents living along Somalia's coast have seen hundreds of militants arriving by boat, apparently in answer to calls by religious leaders to wage a holy war against Ethiopia.
It seems unlikely the government can blockade Somalia's 1,860-mile coastline — the longest in Africa. But the closures could hamper humanitarian aid deliveries to the country, where one in five children dies before age 5 from a preventable disease.
The U.N. World Food Program airlifted several tons of food and other aid into Somalia on Monday, but had not yet been notified of any border closings, agency spokesman Peter Smerdon said.
The Islamic militia, which grew out of a network of ad hoc Muslim courts, has brought a measure of law to a lawless country: The international airport reopened in July after being closed for a decade.
But leaders of the Islamic courts movement alarmed the country's neighbors by threatening to incorporate ethnic Somalis living in eastern Ethiopia, northeastern Kenya and Djibouti into a Greater Somalia.
Many Somalis are enraged by Ethiopian intervention because the countries have fought two wars over their disputed border in the past 45 years. Somalia is overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim, while Ethiopia has a large Christian minority.
Despite this friction, the Somali government — which has failed to assert any real control since it was formed two years ago — relies on its neighbor's military strength.
Earlier, Ethiopia had said it sent advisers to bolster the Somali government's outgunned military forces, but denied dispatching combat troops. The U.N., though, estimates that Ethiopia has 8,000 troops in the country.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said Sunday that his country was "forced to enter a war" with Somalia's Council of Islamic Courts after the group declared holy war on Ethiopia.
So far, Ethiopian and Somali troops have used MiG jet fighters and artillery to attack the Islamists, who have no military aircraft and can return fire only with much smaller mortars and recoilless rifles.
Prime Minister Meles has said he does not intend to keep his forces in Somalia for long, perhaps only a few weeks. He has told visiting dignitaries in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, that his goal is to damage the courts' military capabilities, take away their sense of invincibility and allow both sides to return to peace talks on an even footing.
The Arab League, which has mediated several rounds of talks between the Somali government and the Islamists, called Monday for all parties involved to "immediately hold a comprehensive cease-fire."
Fighting began between the government and the militia a week ago, although it intensified Sunday.
Heavy artillery and mortar fire continued to echo through the main government town of Baidoa, said Mohammed Sheik Ali, a resident reached by telephone. The Islamists have the town surrounded on three sides, but government and Ethiopian troops were attempting to push them back.
Government officials and Islamic militiamen have said hundreds of people have been killed in clashes since Tuesday, but the claims could not be independently confirmed. Aid groups put the death toll in the dozens.