ROME - As Ethiopian forces on Wednesday drew closer to the Somali capital, Mogadishu, a second division of light infantry was present in the northern Guldug region, its sights set on the town of Beledwein, the director of Rome-based Globe Research think tank, Nicola Pedde, told Adnkronos International.
"Its task is to divide the country in two. The aim is to capture Beledwein and prevent supplies reaching the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) from it," he said, citing unnamed sources.
"They are afraid of two things - of outside aid reaching the Islamists and of possible reinforcements from Eritrea," said Pedde.
Soldiers from the Ethiopian engineering corps are extending the airport in the southern town Badaoia - the seat of Somalia's largely ineffectual transitional government - to enable Ethiopian fighter planes to land and take off.
"Work is progressing slowly, although they have installed radar towers," Pedde commented.
Globe Research sources have confirmed that the Ethopian forces have sustained heavy losses, Pedde stated. "This has occurred because they entered Somalia without armoured vehicles, just trucks, and they only have light infantry," Pedde said.
Owing to these losses, the Ethiopian military command has removed the transitional government's generals, accusing them of having under-estimated the size and preparedness of the UIC afilliated Islamist militias, Pedde told AKI.
The security expert said he believes the Ethopian forces do not intend to conquer Mogadishu but to seize the strategic southern port of Kismayo.
"One of their divisions is advancing towards Kismayo, with the objective of capturing the port," he said, citing sources.
"Ethopian troops in Somalia have received no orders to take Mogadishu. Their instructions are to reach its outskirts but not to advance on the city, unless for example the Islamist forces sally forth," he added.
Ethopian troops on Wednesday seized the strategic town of Jowhar, 90 kilomentres from the capital, from Islamist militias during a dawn attack.
This followed a major offensive begun by Ethiopia over the weekend against the UIC, which since June had increased its control to much of central and southern Somalia.
Jowhar is a former UIC stronghold, and its loss leaves the Islamists with control of little more than the coast. The Ethiopian army has called on remaining Islamist fighters to surrender.
"Ethopian offensive is three-pronged at present. The newly reinforced main phalanx in Badoia contains 12,000 troops without heavy weapons. They are backed up by a squadron of helicopter gunships.
Fighter jets are making incursions from Ethiopian soil against the airports controlled by UIC ," said Pedde.
Somalia has been in the grip of warlords and militias for years and has been without an effective national government since 1991 when military dictator Siad Barre was ousted.
The transitional government was formed with UN assistance two years ago, but has failed to establish any real control outside the southern provincial town of Baidoa, where it is based.