Ethiopian forces defending Somalia's weak interim government launched airstrikes yesterday against Islamist fighters in an escalation of a conflict that threatens to engulf the Horn of Africa.
Ethiopian Information Minister Berhan Hailu said the operation targeted several fronts including Dinsoor, Bandiradley and Baladwayne and the town of Buur Hakaba - close to the administration's encircled south-central base Baidoa.
It was the first use of airstrikes and Ethiopia's first public admission of its military involvement in Somalia, whose government is surrounded by fighters of the Somalia Islamic Courts Council backed by mortars and machineguns.
"After too much patience, the Ethiopian government has taken self-defensive measures and started counter-attacking the aggressive extremist forces of the Islamic Courts and foreign terrorist groups," Berhan told Reuters, saying "anti-Ethiopian" elements had massed along the border.
Diplomats fear Addis Ababa's announcement has touched off a war ensnaring Horn of Africa rivals Ethiopia and Eritrea.
They also fear it may attract foreign jihadists answering the Islamists' call for holy war against Christian-led Ethiopia and possibly trigger suicide bombings in east Africa.
Berhan gave no details, but Somali witnesses said Ethiopian planes droned overhead dropping bombs and firing missiles on two areas as the Islamists and pro-government forces pounded each other with rockets for a sixth day.
A senior Islamist, Sheikh Mahmud Ibrahim Suley, accused the Ethiopians of using MiG warplanes and helicopters.
Resident Abdirashid Hassan said he saw planes drop bombs on the outskirts of Baladwayne, 300 kilometers north of the capital Mogadishu. Another witness, Farah Osman, said two Ethiopian planes fired missiles further north, near Bandiradley.
Both sides say they have killed hundreds since the fighting began on Tuesday, although aid agencies report dozens of dead.
Both sides have rained rockets, mortars and machinegun fire across several parts of a slim frontline near Baidoa. Amid the explosions, pick-up trucks armed with heavy weapons have ferried supplies forward and collected the injured.
In the Islamist port city of Kismayu, hundreds of women and children waved goodbye to 1,000 men who had volunteered for the frontline. Dressed in a ragtag of fatigues, the men sped off in camouflage-painted trucks to the chants of "Victory is ours."
Further north in Mogadishu, scores of women and children gathered in one of the main markets to badger men walking along the streets to join the war.
"They told me to wear their clothes if I will not go to war," said Abdi Rashid. "They said I'm not a man, because all men are on the frontline, so I should wear women's clothes."
The SICC captured Mogadishu and a swathe of south Somalia in June, frustrating the Western-backed government's aim to restore central rule for the first time in 15 years.
In other parts of the coastal capital, somber-faced groups of men huddled together to listen to radio news broadcasts, some making calls to relatives in the battle zones.
Several radio stations aired patriotic songs, urging Somalis to defend their country against old foe Ethiopia, with some songs dating from the 1977-78 Ogaden war.
During that conflict, Ethiopia's army crushed Somali troops who tried to lay claim to its ethnically Somali Ogaden region.