Kismayo, Somalia Fighting erupted Sunday on the outskirts of a militant Islamic movement's last remaining stronghold, where Somalia's prime minister said three al-Qaida suspects wanted in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies were hiding.
Somali troops, supported by Ethiopian tanks and MiG fighter jets, attacked front-line forces of the Islamic group in southern Somalia. Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi said they would "capture or kill" the terror suspects.
Thousands of residents fled the fertile agricultural area before the battle, carrying blankets, food and water as they headed toward the Kenyan border, 100 miles to the south.
Gedi said Islamic militants in Kismayo, Somalia's third-largest city, were sheltering alleged bombers Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan and Abu Taha al-Sudani. The bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania killed more than 250 people.
The latest fighting broke out in Helashid, 11 miles northwest of Jilib, the gateway to Kismayo, where an estimated 3,000 hardcore Islamic fighters were preparing for a bloody showdown.
Sporadic gunfire could be heard in Kismayo itself, and Ethiopian MiG fighter were flying over the city. Islamic fighter Rabi Ahmed told The Associated Press that about 50 militia in the city were refusing to go to the front and fight.
The skirmishes were taking place in thick mango forests, which provided cover for the Islamic militia from tanks and aircraft, villager Mohamed Deq told the AP.
Both sides are "firing mortars and artillery shells," he said. "It is heavy, and we can hear a lot of machine gunfire hitting the buildings."
Howo Nor said she was fleeing with her three children. "I don't know where to go. We are terrified because we can hear the fighting," she said.
Islamic leaders vowed to make a stand against Ethiopia, which has one of the largest armies in Africa, or to begin an Iraq-style guerrilla war.
"Even if we are defeated we will start an insurgency," said Sheik Ahmed Mohamed Islan, the head of the Islamic movement in the Kismayo region. "We will kill every Somali that supports the government and Ethiopians."
Jilib resident Mohamed Suldan Ali said the Islamic forces had littered the approach to the town with remote-controlled land mines.