Ethiomedia via Reuters -- Somalia's powerful Islamists on Monday declared holy war against Ethiopia, which they accused of invading their country to help Somalia's government briefly seize a town controlled by pro-Islamist fighters.
Both sides confirmed the takeover of Buur Hakaba, the first military counterstrike by President Abdullahi Yusuf's interim government since the Islamists took Mogadishu in June and went on to seize much of Somalia's south.
"Starting from today, we have declared jihad against Ethiopia," Islamist leader Sheikh Sharif Ahmed told a news conference, while wearing combat fatigues and clutching an AK-47 assault rifle.
Ahmed, usually viewed as a more moderate voice among the Islamists, appeared angry as he addressed reporters.
"Heavily armed Ethiopian troops have invaded Somalia. They have captured Buur Hakaba. History shows that Somalis always win when they are attacked from outside," he said.
The Islamists and residents of Buur Hakaba, seen as a potential flash point because it had put the Islamists within 30 kilometers (20 miles) of the interim government's base in Baidoa, said Ethiopian troops accompanied government fighters who took over the town early Monday.
A government militia commander in Buur Hakaba denied that, and Addis Ababa has consistently said it has not sent any soldiers except for military advisers.
The Islamists, unaccustomed to losing since their spectacular rise, said the government move was the first salvo in a longer -- and long-expected -- conflict.
Sheikh Yusuf Mohamed Siad "Inda'ade," the Islamists' defense chief, told reporters Ethiopia had 35,000 troops inside Somalia. "This is a clear war. We are telling the Ethiopians to leave our country or be responsible for whatever happens," he said.
Ethiopian and Somali government officials were not immediately available for comment.
The takeover of Buur Hakaba appeared to be short-lived. Residents said the pro-Islamist militia had returned by midday after the government contingent left inexplicably.
"The government and Ethiopian troops who this morning captured the town have left. The local militias who had fled are back," resident Omar Jaware told Reuters by telephone.
The Islamists, keenly aware of Somali resistance to foreign -- especially Ethiopian -- interference often accuse the government of being a puppet of Ethiopia, the top military power in the Horn of Africa region.
Ethiopia says the Islamists are led by terrorists, and witnesses say its troops have crossed the border to support the government in recent weeks.
Western governments fear any incursion by Ethiopia, viewed by many Somalis as a Christian imperialist power, could give foreign jihadis a reason to flood Somalia as the newest battleground of Islam against the West.
The Islamist defense chief Inda'ade said it appeared the government intended to march further.
"It looks like they are not done and are planning to attack Kismayu, and other towns in the Lower Shabelle regions," he told Reuters earlier.
The warlord alliance the Islamists removed from Kismayu last month has also threatened to take back the strategic southern port, rocked by repeated protests against the new rulers.
The Islamists have all but dashed the aspirations of the Western-backed government to restore central rule to Somalia for the first time since the 1991 ouster of a dictator.
The Islamists say sharia law is the solution to Somalia's anarchy, but critics say they harbor al Qaeda-linked militants.