ADDIS ABABA, Oct 23 (Reuters) Horn of Africa power Ethiopia warned today it would intervene if Somali Islamists attacked the interim government amid a standoff over a key town that has heightened fears of all-out war.
''We will defend the government if attacked by the jihadists,'' senior government official Bereket Simon said.
''If they try to overthrow the legitimate government, we will help the government,'' Bereket, a minister without portfolio and key ally of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, told Reuters at his office.
Heavily armed Islamist fighters yesterday had gathered near the strategic town of Buur Hakaba -- 30 km from the government's base in Baidoa -- after allies of theirs were chased out by government troops over the weekend.
Islamist security chief Sheikh Yusuf Mohamed Siad, known as Inda'ade, said his fighters have retaken the outpost today but refused to give any details.
''The town is back in our hands as of this morning,'' he told Reuters by phone.
There was no independent confirmation and the government had no immediate comment.
Analysts and diplomats fear conflict between the Islamists and the government could drag the volatile Horn of Africa region into war and give Muslim militants a new battlefront -- especially if Ethiopia enters the fray directly.
They fear that would spur Addis Ababa's arch-rival Eritrea to further back the Islamists -- which Asmara denies doing -- and hand extremists cause to attack what many Somalis believe is a Christian imperialist power backed by the United States.
MORE REUTERS MQA BD1716