MOGADISHU, Somalia – The Islamic militia that controls much of southern Somalia dispatched thousands of troops Sunday to within nine miles of the border with Ethiopia, heightening fears that fighting would break out between the two sides.
A local reporter also said the Islamists were recruiting people for a holy war against Ethiopia, a largely Christian nation that is concerned about the emergence of a neighboring Islamic state and supports Somalia's fragile government.
"All our troops in the region are now ready at the front lines to face their enemy," said Mohamed Mohamud Agaweine, the military commander for the Council of Islamic Courts in central Somalia. He said thousands of Islamic fighters were in the region around the town of Abud-waq, but did not give an exact figure.
The Islamic council has been steadily gaining ground since seizing the capital of Mogadishu in June, while Somalia's two-year-old interim government has failed to assert control anywhere except the town of Baidoa.
Experts have warned Somalia has become a proxy battleground for Somalia's neighbors, Eritrea and Ethiopia. A confidential U.N. report obtained last month by The Associated Press said there were 6,000 to 8,000 Ethiopian troops in Somalia or near the border. The report also said 2,000 troops from Eritrea were inside Somalia supporting the Islamic movement.
Ethiopia has acknowledged sending military advisers to help the Somalian government, but Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has repeatedly denied sending troops, despite widespread witness accounts.
Ahemd Isse Gutaale, a reporter for local radio station HornAfrik, said the Islamists were using loudspeakers Sunday to call for people to join the holy war against Ethiopia.
"They were enrolling new volunteers and asked people to stand for the defense of their country," Gutaale said.
On Saturday, Meles said he expected legislators to back a resolution giving him authority to use military force against Somali extremists if they attack Ethiopia. He also said Ethiopia would not seek approval from the U.N. Security Council or any other body to defend itself militarily, saying it was Ethiopia's "sovereign right."
Somalia has been without an effective central government since warlords toppled dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991 and then turned on each other, carving much of the country into armed camps ruled by violence and clan law.
A government was established two years ago with the support of the U.N. to serve as a transitional body to help Somalia emerge from anarchy. But the leadership, which includes some warlords linked to the violence of the past, wields no real power outside Baidoa.
The United States has accused the Islamic council of sheltering suspects in the 1998 Al Qaeda bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, which the group denies.
Also Sunday, a Somali reporter was arrested in Baidoa, said Mowlid Hagi Abdi of the Somali Broadcasting Corp. It was not clear why the reporter was arrested. The government's information minister did not immediately answer his phone.
Several journalists have been arrested recently for reporting about Ethiopian troops in the country, but they have been released after a few days.