By SALAD DUHUL, Associated Press Writer
Last Updated: December 21, 2006, 01:25:26 PM PST
MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP) - Somalia is in "a state of war," the country's Islamic leader said Thursday, as bodies lay in the streets of strategic villages where U.N.-backed government troops fought advancing Islamic forces.
The clashes threaten to spiral into a major conflict in this volatile region, sucking in Ethiopia and its bitter rival Eritrea, which is accused of supporting the Islamic group. Analysts believe Ethiopia may soon raise the stakes by deploying attack helicopters in support of the government.
An Associated Press photographer saw 19 bodies of Islamic fighters in Moode Moode, a town nine miles from the government garrison town of Baidoa, where fighting had taken place Wednesday.
Three Islamic fighters were captured. One, 25-year-old Aweys Hassan Ma'alim, said he had been forced to fight by the Islamic movement. Another, Adan Abdullahi Mohammed, said he wanted to fight Ethiopians and "die for the sake of Allah in jihad."
Meanwhile Sheikh Ibrahim Shukri Abuu-Zeynab, a spokesman for the Islamic courts, said they had now captured the town of Idale, 37 miles southwest of Baidoa, and killed 200 Ethiopian troops. The claim could not be verified.
"All Somalis should take part in this struggle against Ethiopia," Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys, an Islamic leader, told The Associated Press.
Three days of clashes between the Islamic fighters and government forces, newly trained by Ethiopian troops, have left more than 100 people dead.
Ethiopia denies its forces are fighting, 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 U.N.-backed Somali government, but on Thursday, he said "the country is in a state of war."
In Ethiopia, the government said 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.
EU envoy Louis Michel, in response to a question about Eritrea and Ethiopia's involvement, said, "Somalia is suffering because some are using Somalia as a battlefield for other issues." Both countries fought an unresolved border war in 1998.
Somalia's deputy defense minister Salad Ali Jelle told reporters that 71 Islamic fighters had been killed and 221 injured so far during clashes near Baidoa.
Three government troops were killed and seven injured, Jelle said.
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, Michel said skirmishes were likely to continue, but said both sides had broadly agreed to ease tensions and hold new talks in Sudan.
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.
Associated Press writers Mohamed Olad Hassan and Mohamed Sheik Nor contributed to this report.