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Ethiopia 'seizes key Somali town'

Story Highlights

• Ethiopian troops seize major Somalian town of Jowhar, witnesses say
• U.N. envoy to Somalia asks Security Council to take action
Security Council reportedly to resume debate later Wednesday
• Islamic forces retreat; leader says conflict entering "new phase"
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MOGADISHU, Somalia (CNN) -- Ethiopian troops have taken control of the major Somalian town of Jowhar after several hours of heavy fighting with Islamist fighters and their force of about 2,000 soldiers advanced toward Balad, about 20 miles northeast of Mogadishu, according to witnesses.

The United Nation's World Food Program temporarily stopped its air drops of food into Somalia because of the fighting, according to WFP spokeswoman Stephanie Savariaud. She said WFP staff remain in the country waiting for the situation to improve.

The UN's envoy for Somalia warned Tuesday of a "deteriorating situation" in the Horn of Africa nation, where Ethiopian troops backing the transitional government have launched attacks against Islamist militia that control much of the country.

Francois Lonseny Fall urged the U.N. Security Council to take action to stop the violence that has forced thousands of Somalis -- many of them already devastated by severe flooding -- from their homes.

"The deteriorating situation in Somalia has no doubt dealt a serious blow to efforts aimed at the early resumption of peace talks," Fall said. "The fighting has also compounded an already serious humanitarian crisis, resulting in additional displacement of populations."

Fall also warned that government and Ethiopian forces were approaching Mogadishu, controlled by the Council of Islamic Courts (CIU), from two directions, stoking fears of a major battle for the Somali capital.

The Islamic militant fighters staged a tactical retreat as Ethiopian troops and Somali government forces advanced, but the leader of the CIU said the fighting will last a long time unless the international community takes action against Ethiopia.

Ethiopian war planes bombed the Mogadishu airport Monday morning, an attack an Ethiopian official said was aimed at preventing Islamic jihadists from receiving supplies from outside the country.

Sharif Sheik Ahmed, leader of the CIU, told reporters in Somalia Tuesday that his forces were retreating from forward positions in a change of tactics. He also called on the United States and other countries to speak out against Ethiopia's aggression.

"The war is entering a new phase and the withdrawal we made is for tactical reasons," Ahmed said. " We have changed the strategy of the war. We promise Ethiopia that it will not rest inside Somalia. We ask the world to stand by the Somali people."

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi challenged the notion of a "tactical" retreat by the Islamists.

"Our forces ... have broken the back of the international terrorist forces around Baidoa, and they are in full retreat now," he told reporters in Addis Ababa on Tuesday.

Somalia Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi, speaking to CNN from Baidoa, Somalia, on Monday said the Ethiopian intervention was justified because of threats the "so-called Islamist court" has made against Ethiopia.

"They have all the right to get involved and prevent any attempt of the terrorists to attack their country and their people," Gedi said.

Ahmed said his movement is entirely Somali and had no connections to al Qaeda or other international terrorists.

CIU Foreign Secretary Ibrahim Hassan Addou told CNN that Ethiopia was trying to impose Gedi's U.N.-supported transitional Somali government on the country, when it had no popular support.

The CIU holds most of southern and central Somalia, while the transitional government -- Somalia has had no fully functional government since 1991 -- is based in Baidoa.

In early June, the CIU militia wrested control of Mogadishu from a U.S.-backed coalition of secular warlords.

The CIU has drawn comparisons to the Taliban, the fundamentalist militia that imposed a strict Islamic regime on Afghanistan and allowed al Qaeda to operate from its territory. CIU leader Ahmed has denied accusations that his group is harboring al Qaeda operatives and other terrorists.



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