By MOHAMED OLAD HASSAN
Ethiopian fighter jets bombarded the Somali town of Belet Weyne on Sunday, witnesses said, a sharp escalation in violence that is threatening to engulf the volatile Horn of Africa.
The airstrikes on the town, which is controlled by Somalia's Islamic militia that is battling Somalia's government, hit a strategic road and a recruiting center for the militants, resident Ayanle Husein Abdi told The Associated Press by telephone.
The Council of Islamic Courts has vowed to drive out troops from neighboring Ethiopia, a largely Christian nation that is providing military support to Somalia's U.N.-backed government. Fighting was reported Sunday in Baidoa - the only town the government controls - and the Islamist strongholds of Belet Weyne and Bandiradley.
"The planes hit an Islamic center where the Islamic officials in the region have been enrolling volunteers who wanted to join the war," Abdi said.
Another witness, Said Abukar Sahal, said the strikes were targeting the roads and defenses of the Islamic militia.
Somalia has not had an effective government since warlords overthrew longtime dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991, plunging the country into chaos. The Islamic courts have steadily gained power since June, raising concerns about an emerging Taliban-style regime. The U.S. accuses the group of having ties to al-Qaida, which it denies.
Somali government officials were not immediately available for comment. Last week, officials from the government and the Islamic union said several days of fighting killed hundreds of people.
As Sunday's fighting wore on, the Islamic leadership in the capital, Mogadishu, began broadcasting patriotic songs about Somalia's 1977 war with Ethiopia. Although the two countries view each other as enemies, Somali President Abdullahi Yusuf is a longtime ally of Ethiopia.
The militants, who want to govern Somalia according to Islamic law, invited foreign Muslims on Saturday to join their holy war against Ethiopian troops. Many fear the fighting could escalate into a regional battle.
"Muslims are brothers and help each other," said Sheik Yusuf Indahaadde, national security chairman for the Council of Islamic Courts. "We have a right to call our brothers and sisters to help us in this holy war."
The clashes could mean a major conflict in the Horn of Africa. Ethiopia, which has one of the largest armies in the region, and its bitter rival, Eritrea, could use Somalia as the ground for a proxy war. Eritrea backs the Islamists.
In Kismayo, a strategic seaport captured by Islamic militia in September, residents saw several foreign Arab fighters disembarking from ships this week.
Somali Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi vowed Saturday that his government will "defend the people it is responsible for and Somali sovereignty" and said the Islamic fighters should return to negotiations. Several rounds of talks, mediated by the Arab League, have failed to produce any lasting effect.
Thousands of Somalis have fled their homes as troops loyal to the two-year-old interim administration fought Islamic fighters who had advanced on Baidoa, about 140 miles northwest of Mogadishu. Islamic militiamen control Mogadishu along with most of southern Somalia.
Government officials said more than 600 Islamic fighters had been killed during four days of clashes. Islamic militiamen said they killed around 400 Ethiopians and government fighters. Neither claim could be independently confirmed.
Associated Press writers Salad Duhul and Mohamed Sheik Nor contributed to this report.
Copyright 2006 Associated Press.