Ethiopian tanks 'advance' on key Somali town
Ethiopian troops in battle tanks thrust into rebel-held Somalia regions on Tuesday, sparking heavy fighting as they advanced towards the major Shebab stronghold of Baidoa, witnesses said.
The Ethiopian soldiers, backed by local Somali fighters, took control of several areas along the road heading south from the border to Baidoa, which hosted the transitional parliament before the rebels seized the town in 2009.
"We are getting information that heavy fighting broke out near Bohol-Bashir. The Ethiopian soldiers have taken control of Kurteele and are advancing towards Baidoa," local resident Abdikarin Ahmed told AFP.
At least six civilians were also killed when a landmine struck a vehicle in a southern Somali town near the scene of the fighting, a local elder said.
The Ethiopian advance on the Shebab stronghold comes as the Al-Qaeda allied rebels face increasing pressure on two other fronts, with Kenyan troops coming from the south and aiming for the port of Kismayu while African Union troops try to firm up their grip on Mogadishu and its surroundings.
The insurgents have been reinforcing their positions over the past three days in anticipation of the advance and a local Shebab commander claimed his forces had defeated the Ethiopians.
"The enemies of Allah, Ethiopian mercenaries, crossed to Bohol-Bashir advancing on to the bases of the Mujahideen fighters, but they were defeated," said Sheik Mohamed Abu-Ayub.
"Some of their trucks were destroyed and their intention thwarted by the young energetic soldiers of Allah."
Despite abandoning fixed bases in the capital Mogadishu, the rebels still control swathes of territory in southern and and central Somalia.