BAIDOA, Somalia -- Thousands of Islamic militants have surrounded the only town that Somalia's internationally recognized government controls, the prime minister said yesterday as a top Islamic official promised to attack within a week unless Ethiopian troops leave.
The town, Baidoa, was teeming with soldiers yesterday, with troops in new uniforms patrolling the city and manning checkpoints.
"I believe that war is inevitable because elements within the so-called Islamic Courts are against peace and stability in the country," Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi told the Associated Press in his office in Baidoa.
Ethiopian troops are believed to be based around Baidoa, but were not immediately identifiable. Many Ethiopians are ethnically Somali, and Ethiopian and Somali government troops wear the same uniforms.
Ethiopia acknowledges sending military advisers to help Gedi's internationally recognized government but denies sending a fighting force. A confidential UN report obtained by the AP in October said as many as 8,000 Ethiopian troops were in Somalia or along the border backing the government.
"If the Ethiopians don't withdraw from Somalia within seven days, we will launch a major attack," Sheik Yusuf Indahaadde, national security chairman for the Islamic group, said in the capital, Mogadishu.
Tensions have mounted in recent days between the increasingly powerful militia under the umbrella of a group known as the Council of Islamic Courts and Somalia's government, which has struggled to assert control.
Citing "intelligence reports," Gedi said the Islamists have 3,000 foreign fighters, with more arriving daily. He said four flights carrying weapons and troops arrived in Mogadishu two days ago, and a boat carrying 700 fighters arrived in Kismayo yesterday.
Attempts to reach Islamic officials for comment were not immediately successful.
Somalia has not had an effective central government since warlords overthrew longtime dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991 and then turned on each other. Gedi's transitional government was formed two years ago but it has been unable to assert its authority over the country.
Since June, the Council of Islamic Courts has seized Mogadishu and taken control of much of southern Somalia. The group's strict interpretation of Islam has drawn comparisons to the Taliban, although many Somalis credit the council with bringing a semblance of order to a country that has seen little more than anarchy for more than a decade.
On Monday, Islamic militiamen were moving on the Ethiopian border town of Tiyeglow to try to seal the 1,000-mile frontier against advancing Ethiopian troops while trapping those already in Somalia.
The Somali information minister, Ali Ahmed Jama Jengali, said yesterday that the government had established defense lines and was prepared for an attack on Baidoa.
Besides the political volatility, the impoverished nation is struggling to recover from the worst flood season in East Africa in 50 years. At least 230 people have died from floods and related waterborne diseases since October in Kenya, Somalia, Rwanda, and Ethiopia, according to the UN's World Food Program.
The rains were supposed to end by November, but are expected to continue through January.