By Abdi Sheikh and Feisal Omar
MOGADISHU (Reuters) - Dozens died in fighting between al Shabaab rebels and Ethiopian troops near the central Somali town of Baidoa and another small town on Saturday, residents, regional officials and the Islamist rebels said.
There were differing accounts of which side bore the brunt of casualties in the small town of Yurkud early on Saturday, the heaviest clashes involving Ethiopian troops since they returned to Somalia in force last year after withdrawing in early 2009.
Ethiopian and Somali government troops then clashed with al Shabaab forces near Baidoa, the former seat of the Somali parliament that was wrestled back from rebel control last month for the first time in more than three years.
The fighting came the day after the African Union said Ethiopia planned to pull its troops out of Somalia by the end of April with soldiers from Djibouti, Uganda and Burundi taking their positions.
The governor of Bay region in Somalia, Abdifatah Mohamed Ibrahim Gesey, told Reuters that 130 al Shabaab fighters were killed in Yurkud, with minimal loses on the government and Ethiopian side.
Al Shabaab's spokesman for military operations, Sheikh Abdiasis Abu Musab, told Reuters its forces had killed 73 Ethiopian soldiers, captured two along with many weapons, and lost 5 of its fighters before the Ethiopians fled.
A spokesman for Ethiopia's foreign ministry said he would comment on the reports later.
Al Shabaab later posted an audio recording on a website, which it claimed was the voice of one of the two Ethiopian soldiers captured in Yurkud. In a Somali translation, it said the soldier admitted a number of his colleagues had been killed.
BODIES LITTER THE STREETS
Residents of Yurkud told Reuters that dozens of bodies from both sides littered the streets and that Ethiopian soldiers remained in control after fierce fighting.
It is difficult to get accurate accounts of casualties from clashes in Somalia as all sides tend to exaggerate their successes and underplay their losses. The actual death toll was probably lower than that given by the opposing sides.
"At about 6 a.m. al Shabaab attacked Yurkud. A fierce battle with the Ethiopians continued for hours. Ethiopian troops now control the town," said 56-year-old resident Halima Aden.
"Parts of the town have been destroyed. Some residents fled and others are hiding in the houses," she said, adding that bodies from all sides littered the streets.
There were also differing accounts about the fighting near Baidoa, around 130 km (80 miles) away. Al Shabaab's military spokesman said they attacked Ethiopian and Somali troops very near to the town killing about a dozen, mostly Ethiopian, fighters.
The governor of Bay told Reuters from Baidoa that they had launched attacks on two al Shabaab bases about 7 km and 11 km away from the town to pre-empt an offensive.
"We are waiting for details of casualties from our men on the ground but we have seized weapons and ammunitions, fighting has now died down," he said.
Troops from Ethiopia crossed its southern border in November to open up a third front against the militants, who are also fighting 9,000 Ugandan and Burundian troops under the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and Kenyan forces in the south of the Horn of Africa state.
Ethiopian forces captured Baidoa last month having seized the strategic town of Baladwayne, near the Ethiopian border, from the al Qaeda-allied al Shabaab group on New Year's Eve.
Keen to stress that its incursion is not a repeat of its ill-fated 2006-2009 war in Somalia, Ethiopian officials have said troops would only be deployed for a brief period.
(Additional reporting by Mohamed Ahmed in Nairobi and Aaron Maasho in Addis Ababa; Editing by David Clarke and Ben Harding)