MOGADISHU, Somalia – Ethiopia sent fighter jets into Somalia and bombed several towns Sunday in a dramatic attack on Somalia's powerful Islamic movement, and Ethiopia's prime minister said his country had been "forced to enter a war."
It was the first time Ethiopia acknowledged its troops were fighting in support of Somalia's U.N.-backed interim government even though witnesses had been reporting their presence for weeks in an escalating battle that threatens to engulf the Horn of Africa region.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi went on television to announce that his country was at war with the Islamic movement that wants to rule neighboring Somalia by the Quran.
"Our defense force has been forced to enter a war to defend (against) the attacks from extremists and anti-Ethiopian forces and to protect the sovereignty of the land," Meles said a few hours after his military attacked the Islamic militia with fighter jets and artillery.
No reliable casualty reports were immediately available.
Ethiopia, a largely Christian nation, supports Somalia's interim government, which has been losing ground to the Council of Islamic Courts for months.
"They are cowards," said Sheik Mohamoud Ibrahim Suley, an official with the Islamic movement, which controls most of southern Somalia. "They are afraid of the face-to-face war and resorted to airstrikes. I hope God will help us shoot down their planes."
Eritrea, a bitter rival of Ethiopia, is backing the Islamic militia, and experts fear the conflict could draw in the volatile Horn of Africa region, which lies close to the Saudi Arabian peninsula and has seen a rise in Islamic extremism. A recent U.N. report said 10 nations have been illegally supplying arms and equipment to both sides in Somalia.
People living along Somalia's coast have reported seeing hundreds of foreign Muslims entering the country in answer to calls from the Islamic militia to fight a holy war against Ethiopia.
The Islamic group's often severe interpretation of Islam raises memories of Afghanistan's Taliban regime, which was ousted by a U.S.-led campaign for harboring Usama bin Laden. The U.S. says four Al Qaeda leaders blamed for the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania have become leaders in Somalia's Islamic militia.
The Islamic movement drove secular Somali warlords supported by the U.S. out of the capital, Mogadishu, last summer and have seized most of the southern half of the country, which has not had an effective government since a longtime dictatorship was toppled in 1991.
The interim Somali administration, formed two years ago with U.N. help, been unable to exert any wide control and its influence is now confined to the area around the western city of Baidoa.
Several rounds of peace talks failed to yield any lasting results.
Major fighting broke out Tuesday night, but had tapered off before Sunday's battles began before dawn and continued for about 10 hours.
Ethiopian Information Minister Berhan Hailu said before Meles' announcement that Ethiopian soldiers were fighting alongside Somali government soldiers in Dinsoor, Belet Weyne, Bandiradley and Bur Haqaba.
Witnesses said a major road and an Islamic recruiting center were bombed in Belet Weyne, and 12 Ethiopian soldiers were reportedly captured nearby.
"We saw 12 blindfolded men and were told they were Ethiopian prisoners captured in the battle," said Abdi Fodere, a businessman in Belet Weyne.
Less serious fighting also was reported in Baidoa.
"I think they have met a resistance they have never dreamt of before," interim Somali President Abdullahi Yusuf said in brief remarks as the fighting began to die down at Baidoa.
Suley, the official with the Islamic movement, said his forces had destroyed four Ethiopian tanks outside the city.
As Sunday's fighting wore on, the Islamic militia began broadcasting patriotic songs in Mogadishu about Somalia's 1977 war with Ethiopia. The two countries have fought two wars over their disputed border in the past 45 years.
Meles has said his government has a legal and moral obligation to support Somalia's internationally recognized government. He also accuses the Islamic movement of backing ethnic Somali rebels fighting for independence from Ethiopia and has called such support an act of war.
Leaders of the Islamic militia have repeatedly said they want to incorporate ethnic Somalis living in eastern Ethiopia, northeastern Kenya and Djibouti into a Greater Somalia.
The fighting is hitting a country already devastated by conflict. One in five children dies before age 5 from a preventable disease, and the impoverished nation is struggling to recover from eastern Africa's worst flood season in 50 years.
Government officials and Islamic militiamen have said hundreds of people have been killed in the fighting since Tuesday, but the claims could not be independently confirmed. Aid groups put the death toll in the dozens.