MOGADISHU - An offensive by Somalia's Islamist Shebab fighters on Ethiopian troops on Saturday left many combatants dead, military sources on both sides and witnesses said.
"The fighting around the village of Yurkut was the most intense since Ethiopian forces entered Somalia" in November, said one of the witnesses in the country's southwestern region, Abukar Moalim Yarow.
Military sources in both camps gave differing tolls but stressed the fierceness of the fighting, which lasted three hours, according to independent witnesses.
"The mujahideen fighters led their most important military incursion against enemy positions in Yurkut," Sheikh Mohamed Abu-Fatma, a top Shebab commander in the sector, said by telephone.
"We forced the enemy to temporarily abandon three barracks and we killed more than 40 of their men," he added.
Kalif Adan, a pro-government official, said from Baidoa that the Shebab "attacked Yurkut this morning. Many of them were killed in fierce fighting.
"The fighting is now over and (the Shebab) have been heavily beaten."
The hardline Shebab attacked Ethiopian positions in Yurkut, near the strategic town of Luuq, on the road linking the Somalia-Ethiopia border with Baidoa, a former rebel bastion in southern Somalia which Ethiopian forces recaptured last month.
Somalia has been plagued by a relentless conflict since the 1991 ouster of President Mohamed Siad Barre.
In February Somali and world leaders met in London for a conference aimed at finding solutions to the Horn of Africa country's protracted crisis that has spawned piracy, militancy and a devastating humanitarian crisis.
The attack was typical of the Islamists' new strategy of guerrilla warfare against enemy rear bases after being forced out of fixed positions in urban areas by pro-government foreign forces.
Yurkut is a key position on the supply line for Ethiopian forces in Baidoa.
As well as the Ethiopians, who wrested Baidoa and Beledweyne, northwest of Mogadishu, from them, the Shebab rebels are under pressure from an African Union force of Ugandan and Burundian troops which ousted them from the capital Mogadishu and Kenyan troops who entered Somalia from the south in October.
The Kenyan army, which since last month has been part of the African Union force, said Saturday it had launched at least five land and air attacks in the past week on Shebab fighters still active behind its lines some 15-20 kilometres (8-12 miles) from the Somali-Kenya border.
"These are pockets of remnants of Al-Shebab that have been left behind and their main purpose is to try to disrupt our activities in that area and cause disharmony between our forces and the local communities," military spokesman Colonel Cyrus Ogona said.
"This calls for continued pacification operations until the time that we are certain that the area is stable enough," Ogona said.