Artillary attacks begin on dug in Islamist

Reuters:

Somali government forces and Ethiopian allies rained down mortars and rockets on Islamist fighters dug in near a southern port town on Sunday to start a battle that could be the last stand for the Islamists.

As night fell, the Islamists who fled Mogadishu three days ago to take refuge around the towns of Kismayu and nearby Jilib, fired back from trenches in scrubby bushland, witnesses said.

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It was unclear if, after two weeks of war, the two sides would go on fighting through the night and into the New Year. Night battles are unusual in Somalia.

The besieged Somalia Islamic Courts Council (SICC) has rallied several thousand fighters at Jilib, just north of the port town of Kismayu on the shores of the Indian Ocean, after a retreat south 300 km (190 miles) from the capital Mogadishu.

Fearing a blood-bath, residents ran for their lives, carrying blankets, food and water on their heads.

"Two-thirds of the population in Jilib have fled the town... nearly 4,700 have fled," aid worker Osman Mohamed said.

The Islamists have built trenches with bulldozers and have more than 60 "technicals" -- pickups mounted with heavy weapons -- supporting some 3,000 fighters, witnesses say.

"We decided to come to the bush here in order to continue with the jihad against Ethiopia. I am on the frontline, I'm just waiting to kill the invading Ethiopians," spokesman Mudey added.

Amid confusing initial reports, residents said they saw mortars and rockets falling on deserted houses in Jilib from Bulobaley on one of two roads the Ethiopian-Somali government force had been marching along toward the Islamist defenses.

"They are using heavy and light weapons against each other. I have to flee from some of the weapons that are hitting the town," resident Madey Osman said.

Jilib lies about 45 kms (28 miles) north of Kismayu, where senior Islamist leaders Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys and Sheikh Sharif Ahmed are based.

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Kenya has reinforced its northern border and U.S. forces are also said to be in the region, including the sea, to prevent foreign militants aligned with the Islamists from escaping.

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This report from AFP suggest the Islamist are already retreating from Jilib:

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Islamist commanders said their forces had retreated from the frontline in the outskirts of Jilib and were speeding to Kismayo, about 100 kilometres to the south.

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A resident saw Islamist pick-up trucks mounted with machine guns speeding to Kismayo from the frontlines.

"I saw more than 10 Islamist armed vehicles speeding through the town ... they were heading to Kismayo and they did not stop. They seem to have been defeated because they were retreating back to Kismayo," said resident Salah Mumin.

"They are very few people left in the town. The Islamists have abandoned Jilib," he added.

Somalia's deputy defence minister, Salad Ali Jelle, said the joint government and Ethiopian forces on the ground outnumbered the Islamists in Jilib by more than two to one.

"The Islamists are very weak now," Jelle said.

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The AP says some of the fighting is taking place in a thick Mango forest where the Islamist have taken cover.

It is clear that there is a closing on the Islamist defenses. It will be interesting to see if there are some night fighters in this war.

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