MOGADISHU, Somalia – Islamic fighters were in a tactical retreat Tuesday, a senior Islamic leader said, as government and Ethiopian troops advanced on three fronts in a decisive turn around in the battle for control of Somalia.
Somalia’s internationally backed government called on the Council of Islamic Courts to surrender and promised them amnesty if they lay down their weapons and stop opposing the government, spokesman Abdirahman Dinari said from Baidoa, the seat of the government.
Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, leader of the Council of Islamic Courts’ executive body, said the group had asked its troops to withdraw from some areas.
“The war is entering a new phase,” he said. “We will fight Ethiopia for a long, long time and we expect the war to go everyplace.”
Ahmed declined to explain [his] comments in greater detail, but some Islamic leaders have threatened a guerrilla war to include suicide bombings in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa.
Patrick Mazimhaka, the deputy chairman of the African Union Commission, expressed support for Somalia’s government and defended Ethiopia’s military advances.
“If Ethiopia feels sufficiently threatened, then we recognize the right of Ethiopia to defend itself if it thinks its sovereignty and its security are under direct threat.”
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.
But Ahmed rejected any suggestion of resuming peace talks and appeared unbowed by his group’s losses.
Skirmishes were continuing on Tuesday, with a witness in Bur Haqaba reporting that he heard explosions nearby after two Ethiopian jets flew overhead.
“I saw two helicopters, I heard the sounds of bombs at Lego village,” said Mohamed Abdulle Siidi by telephone. The account could not be immediately confirmed.
Islamic troops withdrew more than 50 miles to the southeast from Daynuney, a town just south of Baidoa. The retreat along the western front follows the bombing by Ethiopian jets of the country’s two main international airports.
Advancing government and Ethiopian troops captured Bur Haqaba, one of the Islamists’ main bases after it was abandoned early Tuesday.
“We woke up from our sleep this morning and the town was empty of troops, not a single Islamic fighter,” Ibrahim Mohamed Aden, a resident of Bur Haqaba said.
Islamic fighters were also reportedly retreating on two other fronts. On the southern front, government troops captured Dinsor, Dinari said.
On the northern front, government and Ethiopian troops entered the town of Bulo Barde, where just two weeks ago an Islamic cleric said anyone who did not pray five times a day would be executed.
Government and Ethiopian troops were headed for Jowhar, 55 miles north of Mogadishu, after driving Islamic troops from Bandiradley, Adadow and Galinsor.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi announced on Saturday that he had sent troops into Somalia to fight international terrorists, defend Ethiopian interests and prop up the besieged U.N.-backed government, which only has a very small military force.
Many Somalis are enraged by the idea of Ethiopian involvement here because the countries have fought two wars over their disputed border in the past 45 years. Islamic leaders have repeatedly said they want to incorporate ethnic Somalis living in eastern Ethiopia, northeastern Kenya and Djibouti into a Greater Somalia.