By Hassan Yare
BAIDOA, Somalia (Reuters) - Ethiopian planes dropped bombs and fired missiles on two locations in Somalia on Sunday, witnesses said, as fighting between Somali Islamists and their Ethiopian-allied rivals raged for a sixth day.
There was no immediate word from Ethiopia, the Somali interim government or the Islamists.
Resident Abdirashid Hassan said he saw planes drop bombs on the outskirts of Baladwayne, 190 miles (300 km) from the capital Mogadishu. "The Ethiopians have started bombing," he said by telephone.
Another witness, businessman Farah Osman, said two Ethiopian planes fired missiles on the outskirts of Bandiradley, 435 miles (700 km) north of Mogadishu.
If confirmed, the use of foreign attack aircraft would raise the stakes in the most sustained combat yet between the Ethiopia-backed interim government and Islamists.
The Islamists took power in Mogadishu and a swathe of southern Somalia in June, challenging the Western-backed interim government's aim to restore central rule for the first time since dictator Mohamed Siad Barre was toppled in 1991.
This week's clashes have heightened fears of a major regional war that would ensnare Horn of Africa rivals Ethiopia and Eritrea and trigger possible suicide bombings in East Africa.
Fighters loyal to both sides started firing shells, rockets and machine guns at each other shortly after dawn, witnesses said, in battles that spread to four fronts.
Military experts estimate Ethiopia has 15,000-20,000 troops in Somalia, while Eritrea has about 2,000 behind the Islamists.
Asmara denies the accusation, while Addis Ababa admits only having a few hundred military trainers in Baidoa.
"Fighting is going on from one part of the country to the other. The Islamic Courts have ignited the war they promised yesterday," Information Minister Ali Ahmed Jama "Jangali" told Reuters from the encircled government base Baidoa.
"They will lose in this fighting."
Both sides say they have killed hundreds since the fighting began on Tuesday, although aid agencies report dozens of dead.
An Islamist fighter close to the semi-autonomous Puntland region, north of Baidoa, said: "Now there is a full-blown war."
Heavy fighting was reported round Daynunay, the government's forward military base about 20 km (12 miles) southeast of Baidoa. Battles also broke out in Manas to the west, Kalaber to the north and Bandiradley, close to the border with Puntland.
A hospital source, declining to be identified, said medical teams were waiting to treat troops from the front.
"The fighting is getting nastier. There must be a lot of casualties," the source said.
On Saturday, the Islamists urged foreign Muslim fighters to join their "holy war" against Ethiopia. They accuse Christian-led Ethiopia, a key U.S. ally in its war against terrorism, of invading Somalia.Reuters