Islamic militants say they capture town in central Somalia after heavy fighting
MOGADISHU, Somalia – Islamic militants said they captured a town in central Somalia on Sunday after they came under attack from pro-government militiamen backed by troops from Ethiopia and a semiautonomous region in northern Somalia.The fighting erupted near the border of the Puntland region, one of the few areas in Somalia still outside the control of the Islamic movement. The group said it captured the town of Bandiradley, about 430 miles north of the capital, Mogadishu, and two of its fighters were killed in the battle.”The fighting is continuing and we are pursuing Puntland troops,” Mohamed Mahmud Agaweyne, spokesman for the Islamic group in central Somalia, told The Associated Press by telephone.Sa’id Abdirahman Dakaweyne, a colonel with the Puntland militia, confirmed the fighting. Puntland officials said they had put their troops on full alert.Government officials declined to say if anyone from their militia had been killed.Somalia has not had an effective government since 1991 when warlords overthrew a dictator and then turned on each other. The new interim government was formed with the help of the U.N. two years ago. But it has failed to assert any real control outside the southern town of Baidoa where it is based.The Islamic courts militia, meanwhile, has been rising since June and now controls most of the country’s south and the capital. The United States has accused the group of sheltering suspects in the 1998 al-Qaida bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.Experts warn Somalia could become a proxy battleground for neighboring Ethiopia and Eritrea, which broke away from Ethiopia in 1991 following a civil war. Eritrea supports the Islamic militia, while Ethiopia backs the interim government.A confidential U.N. report obtained recently by The Associated Press said 6,000-8,000 Ethiopian troops were in Somalia or along the border. It also said 2,000 soldiers from Eritrea were inside the country. Eritrea denies having any troops in Somalia, while Ethiopia insists it has sent only a few hundred advisers.Agaweyne said the Islamic fighters had captured two tanks and 11 pickup trucks mounted with machine guns. Islamic forces said the tanks had Ethiopian markings.Ethiopian officials were not immediately available for comment.Sporadic skirmishes have broken out in central Somalia since May, when the Islamic movement took the town of Jowhar and began extending northward toward Puntland, which has close ties to Ethiopia and opposes the spread of the Islamic forces.Puntland declared itself an autonomous state within Somalia in 1998. It has generally been spared the violence that has wracked the southern part of the country.Several peace initiatives between Somalia’s interim government and the Islamic movement have failed to take hold. A peace deal agreed to Friday by a renegade lawmaker and the Islamists was rejected 24 hours later by the interim administration, which said it was done without its approval.Meanwhile, Kenya announced that all flights to Somalia would be suspended as of Monday due to security reasons. The order affects almost daily service from Nairobi to Mogadishu and three other towns in Somalia.Late last week, the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi warned that extremists in Somalia were planning suicide attacks in Kenya and Ethiopia.—Associated Press writer Salad Duhul and Mohamed Ali in Mogadishu also contributed to this report.