BAIDOA, Somalia -- Somalia's top Islamic leader called yesterday for a holy war against Ethiopia to drive out troops the largely Christian nation sent to protect the internationally backed Somali government.
The radical Islamic forces control more of Somalia than the government, and have made clear they consider themselves the legitimate authority in the country.
Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys, in an angry radio broadcast, said Ethiopia deployed troops to the government's base in Baidoa, 150 miles northwest of Mogadishu, to bolster what he described as a puppet regime.
He said President Abdullahi Yusuf, his longtime rival, has ``been a servant of Ethiopia for a long time."
``I am calling on the Somali people to wage a holy war against Ethiopians in Baidoa," said Aweys, who the US government alleges has ties to Al Qaeda. ``They came to protect a government which they set up to advance their interests."
``We must defend our sovereignty," he declared on Radio Shabelle.
The Islamic group organized anti-Ethiopia demonstrations yesterday in the capital, Mogadishu, and militiamen shot dead two people who joined a daring counterdemonstration.
Residents of Baidoa reported seeing hundreds of Ethiopian troops, in uniform and in marked armored vehicles, entering the city on Thursday and taking up positions around President Yusuf's compound.
Ethiopian and Somali government officials have denied that Ethiopian troops are in the country, though witnesses from five towns have reported seeing them. The government's deputy information minister, Salad Ali Jeele, maintained yesterday that people were seeing government militia wearing uniforms given to them by Ethiopia.
Reliance on Ethiopia appears to make the government beholden to the country's traditional enemy and hurts its legitimacy. Anti-Ethiopia sentiment still runs high in much of this almost entirely Muslim country, and the two governments may want to keep the troop deployment quiet.
The neighboring countries are traditional enemies, although Somalia's president has asked Ethiopia for its support.
The Ethiopians kept off the streets of Baidoa for most of yesterday. Residents saw them move in trucks between their positions earlier in the day, said Salah Adow, a resident in the town.
Pro government militiamen set up an extra checkpoint on the road leading to the capital to bolster security in Baidoa. Militias were not patrolling the streets, except for armed escorts of government officials.
Residents of Baidoa appeared unfazed by the presence of Ethiopian troops. Tensions sparked by fears of attacks by Islamic militants earlier in the week eased yesterday in the town.
Ethiopia's move could give the internationally recognized Somali government its only chance of curbing the Islamic militia's increasing power. But the incursion could also be just the pretext the militiamen need to build public support for a guerrilla war.
If the competition for power should become violent, there is little doubt that Ethiopia has the superior fighting force. Ethiopia sent troops into Somalia in 1993 and 1996 to quash Islamic militants attempting to establish a religious government.
Somalia has been without an effective central government since warlords toppled dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991 and then turned on one another, carving much of the country into armed camps ruled by violence and clan law.
The interim government has been weakened by internal rivalries and is distrusted by some Somalis because it includes warlords linked to past violence. The Islamic group portrays itself as capable of bringing order and unity.
The United States on Thursday urged Ethiopia to exercise restraint and said the European Union, the United States, the African Union, the Arab League, and others in an international contact group on Somalia will meet soon to consider the volatile situation.