MOGADISHU, Somalia — Government troops backed by ground and air forces from neighboring Ethiopia swept toward the Somali capital of Mogadishu Tuesday as lightly armed Islamic fighters beat what their leadership called a tactical retreat and announced preparations for a long war.
Christian-led Ethiopia claimed that its forces were halfway toward defeating the militias of the Council of Islamic Courts, a loose clan-based alliance of Muslim leaders that holds Mogadishu and had controlled most of southern Somalia.
But the Courts' threat of waging a lengthy conflict raised the prospect that its fighters could bog Ethiopian forces down in a bloody insurgency bolstered by foreign jihadists. That could further destabilize the strategic Horn of Africa.
The United States, which accuses the Courts of being in league with al-Qaida, sent its strongest signal since Africa's newest war erupted a week ago that it supported Ethiopia's military intervention.
"Ethiopia has genuine security concerns with regard to developments within Somalia and has provided support at the request of the legitimate government authority," State Department spokesman Kurtis Cooper said in Washington. "We have urged and continue to urge the Ethiopian government to exercise maximum restraint in intervening or responding to developments in Somalia and to assure the protection of civilians."
Ismail Hurre, the foreign minister of Somalia's U.N.-recognized Transitional Federal Government, said in a telephone interview from Nairobi, Kenya, that he was "sure" that U.S. surveillance aircraft were providing intelligence to Ethiopia.
Pentagon officials couldn't be reached immediately for comment.
In an emergency session of the U.N. Security Council, Francois Lonseny Fall, special envoy for Somalia, warned that a prolonged conflict "would be disastrous for the long-suffering people of Somalia and could also have serious consequences for the entire region."
U.N. officials expressed deep concern, warning that some 800 injured civilians have sought medical help and that thousands of others were fleeing the fighting, which is disrupting aid supplies to 2 million people in south-central Somalia.
Fall told the Security Council that fighting was taking place along a 250 mile-wide front and that government forces, backed by Ethiopia, were advancing on Mogadishu from two directions.
"However, they are still facing stiff resistance from the Islamic Courts militias and their allies in several areas," he continued.
As Ethiopian jets flew raids deep in Islamist-held territory, Ethiopian troops, tanks and heavy artillery and transitional government forces made dramatic new advances, capturing five key towns in central and southwestern Somalia without a fight.
The advances vastly expanded the territory seized from the Islamists. Until the last few days, the Courts' militias had penned up the deeply unpopular transitional government in the town of Baidoa after overrunning Mogadishu and most of southern Somalia beginning in June.
The advances brought Ethiopian forces and government troops closer to Mogadishu and Kismayo, a major port south of the capital captured by the Islamic Courts in September.
In the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi told a news conference that up to 1,000 Islamic fighters had been killed, a claim that couldn't be confirmed.
Meles described the goal of what he said were 3,000 to 4,000 Ethiopian troops as crushing the Islamist militias and other "terrorists."
"We have already completed half our mission, and as soon as we finish the second half, our troops will leave Somalia," he said.
Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, a senior Islamist leader, said in Mogadishu that Courts militias were pulling back as part of a tactical retreat.
"We are in a new phase," he said. "Since we don't have heavy artillery, we have decided to change our tactics, keeping in mind a long-term war to defeat Ethiopia."
He indicated that the Courts could revert to guerrilla tactics against the Ethiopians, whose Christian-led country has fought two wars in the past 45 years with Somalia and is widely disliked by the overwhelmingly Muslim Somalis.
U.N. officials have said that the Courts are backed by some 2,000 troops from Ethiopia's other regional foe, Eritrea.
Hurre, the TFG foreign minister, predicted that it would be "very easy to run them (the Islamists) out of Mogadishu."
But Samuel Assefa, the Ethiopian ambassador to the United States, said in a telephone interview that Ethiopian forces didn't plan to capture Mogadishu, but are seeking to force the Islamists to resume negotiations on power-sharing with the transitional government.
"The idea is not to get rid of the party that will dialogue ... but to create an environment in which the other side feels the pressure to be properly motivated to enter the dialogue," he said.
Many experts have questioned whether Ethiopian forces could subdue and stabilize Mogadishu when U.S. and U.N. peacekeepers failed to do so in the mid-1990s.
(McClatchy correspondent Roy Gutman contributed to this report. Elmi reported from Mogadishu; Landay reported from Washington.)