- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 26, 2006

11:56 a.m.

MOGADISHU, Somalia — Islamist fighters retreated today as Somali government and Ethiopian troops advanced on three fronts in a decisive turn in the battle for control of this Horn of Africa nation.

Somalia’s internationally backed government called on the Council of Islamic Courts to surrender and promised amnesty if they lay down their weapons, spokesman Abdirahman Dinari said from Baidoa, the seat of the interim administration.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, whose military openly joined the war Sunday after weeks of quietly aiding the Somali government, said his forces had completed about half their mission.

“As soon as we have accomplished our mission — and about half of our mission is done, and the rest shouldn’t take long — we’ll be out,” Mr. Meles told reporters in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.

He also claimed Islamist militiamen had suffered heavy casualties, citing internal reports from Ethiopia’s military.

“I hear reports of close to 3,000 injured in Mogadishu’s hospitals … and well over 1,000 might have died,” Mr. Meles said.

Both sides have claimed to have killed hundreds of their enemy, but independent observers have not been given access to the battlefields to check on the reports.

Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, leader of the Council of Islamic Courts’ executive body, said the group had told 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.”

Sheik Ahmed declined to explain his comments in greater detail, but some Islamist leaders had threatened a guerrilla war to include suicide bombings in Ethiopia’s capital.

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