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A Somali child with his family belongings takes a ride on a donkey cart to escape fighting on Sunday. ((Mohamed Sheikh Nor/Associated Press))

Ethiopia has moved openly for the first timeagainst Islamic militants inneighbouring Somalia, striking in border towns Sunday amid fears that the violence could engulf the Horn of Africa.

Until now, Ethiopia has supported Somalia's weak interim government against the militants, but has denied that its troops have crossed the border to fight — even though witnesses have been describing such attacks for weeks.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi went on television Sundayto announce that his country was at war with the Islamic movement — the Council of Islamic Courts — that wants to rule Somalia by the Qur'an.

"Our defence force has been forced to enter a war to defend [against] the attacks from extremists and anti-Ethiopian forces and to protect the sovereignty of the land," Meles said a few hours after his military attacked militant-held towns with fighter jets and artillery.

Islamist militants call Ethiopians 'cowards'

The Council of Islamic Courts — which controls much of southern Somalia, includingits capital, Mogadishu— has vowed to drive out troops from neighboring Ethiopia, a largely Christian nation that has been providing military support to the United Nations-backed interim government.

"They are cowards," said Sheik Mohamoud Ibrahim Suley, an official with the Council of Islamic Courts.

"They are afraid of the face-to-face war and resorted to air strikes. I hope God will help us shoot down their planes."

But Somali President Abdullahi Yusuf said his forces have gained the upper hand.

"I think they have met a resistance they have never dreamt of before," Yusuf said in brief remarks from Baidoa— the only town the government controls— as the battles began to die down Sunday afternoon.

Islamic movement gaining power since June

Somalia has not had an effective government since warlords overthrew longtime dictator Maj.-Gen. Muhammad Siad Barre in 1991, plunging the country into chaos.

The Islamic movement hasbeen steadily gaining power since June, raising concerns about an emerging Taliban-style regime. The United States accuses the group of having ties to al-Qaeda, which it denies.

As Sunday's fighting wore on, the Islamic leadership in the capital, Mogadishu, began broadcasting patriotic songs about Somalia's 1977 war with Ethiopia.

Abdi Muhammad Osman, who owns a shop in the capital, said businessmen were closing their shops to go and fight.

"We are going to support our brothers on the front line," he said.

History of strife between Ethiopia, Somalia

The Ethiopian air strikes were the first against Somalia's Islamic movement.

Ethiopia and Somalia have fought two wars over their disputed border in the past 45 years.

Leaders of the Islamic movementhave repeatedly said they want to incorporate ethnic Somalis living in eastern Ethiopia, northeastern Kenya and Djibouti into a Greater Somalia.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has said his government has a legal and moral obligation to support and defend Somalia's internationally recognized government.

He has repeatedly accused the Islamic movement of backing ethnic Somali militants fighting for independence from Ethiopia and has called such support an act of war.

The militants invited foreign Muslims on Saturday to join their holy war against Ethiopian troops.

Clashes could embroil Horn of Africa

The clashes could mean a major conflict in the Horn of Africa. Ethiopia, which has one of the largest armies in the region, and its bitter rival, Eritrea, could use Somalia as the ground for a proxy war. Eritrea backs the Islamists.

In Kismayo, a strategic seaport captured from the government by Islamic militia in September, residents saw several foreign Arab fighters disembarking from ships this week.

Thousands of Somalis have fled their homes as troops loyal to the two-year-old interim administration fought Islamic fighters who had advanced on Baidoa, about 225 kilometres northwest of Mogadishu.

Government officials said more than 600 Islamic fighters had been killed during four days of clashes. Islamic militiamen said they killed around 400 Ethiopians and government fighters.

Neither claim could be independently confirmed.