BUUR HAKABA, Somalia (Reuters) - Somali Islamist forces and pro-government troops dug in on Wednesday on either side of a frontline in the divided Horn of Africa nation which has this week slid closer to all-out war.
Regional power Ethiopia, however, scoffed at an Islamist vow to attack Somali government lines unless Addis Ababa withdraws within a week troops backing the interim administration at Baidoa, the only town it holds on its own turf.
And Somali Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi, in Nairobi to lobby for support for an African peacekeeping force, said he feared war may now be inevitable.
Fighters from the religious movement and Western-backed government have skirmished several times in the past week near Baidoa, a south-central trading town.
Just outside Buur Hakaba, the Somalia Islamic Courts Council (SICC) base closest to the front with Baidoa, witnesses reported both sides digging trenches and moving troops.
The Islamists on Tuesday gave Addis Ababa, which is backing the government, seven days to withdraw what it says are more than 30,000 Ethiopian troops in Somalia — or face war.
“I witnessed Ethiopian and government troops on high alert. After less than 2 km (1 mile) I saw the SICC on a defense line and moving toward Daynunay,” Baidoa shopkeeper Isman Ibrahim Hassan told Reuters near Buur Hakaba.
Daynunay is the forward government post on the road to Islamist-controlled Mogadishu, which passes Buur Hakaba. Both sides have been building up there for months.
“I saw a convoy of Ethiopian trucks including nine towing heavy artillery moving to the front,” store owner Abdifaitah Ali Isak told Reuters by telephone from Baidoa.
Somali prime minister Gedi told Reuters the Islamist forces, backed by 4,000 foreign fighters spread around the south, were moving into position for a possible imminent attack on Baidoa.
“I don’t think that they are ready for dialogue, for peace and stability to prevail in Somalia. In that case, war may become inevitable,” he told Reuters in Nairobi, adding that government forces were ready for battle.
“All these movements are an indication that they will try to attack the seat of the government in Baidoa.”
Belligerent rhetoric has been at a fever pitch for months, and rose after the U.N. Security Council on December 7 approved a peacekeeping deployment to help the government, a move the SICC has threatened to answer with holy war.
Prime Minister Meles Zenawi accused the SICC of aggression toward Ethiopia, as evidenced by their declaration of jihad.
“We have been trying to get the issue resolved peacefully. If it is not resolved peacefully, it would be very unfortunate,” Meles added in comments to reporters on Wednesday.
Ethiopia, which accuses the SICC of being led by terrorists, maintains it only has a few hundred military trainers in Baidoa. Witnesses and security experts estimate about 10,000 Ethiopian soldiers in Somalia.
A Western security expert told Reuters foreign fighters had been flying into Mogadishu by the hundreds over the past few days and preparations for an imminent war were evident.
“On the ground, this is being backed up by reinforcements on both sides, and an influx of foreign fighters in support of the SICC,” the expert told Reuters.
The Islamists deny having foreign fighters in their ranks.
But experts dismiss that and al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden has urged jihadists to come to fight foreign troops in Somalia.
In the southern port of Kismayu, the Islamists said they had signed up 900 men and 100 women in the three days since opening a recruiting office there.
“We will give them training and then they will go to the front,” senior Islamist Sheikh Hassan Yacquob told Reuters.
Among the new recruits was Mohamed Mahamud, 13: “My parents don’t want me to go to war but I want to fight for my country.”
The Ethiopian presence has given the Islamists, who want to impose a strict form of sharia law nationwide, a powerful recruiting tool that exploits Somalis’ deep nationalism and a millennium of rivalry with Ethiopia.
With Ethiopian foe Eritrea accused of backing the Islamists with arms and military advisers — a claim Asmara denies — many fear the Somali crisis could flare into a regional war.
Additional reporting by Sahra Abdi Ahmed in Kismayu; and Bryson Hull and Andrew Cawthorne in Nairobi