By Aaron Maasho
ADDIS ABABA, March 11 (Reuters) - Ethiopia rejected on Sunday reports that dozens of its soldiers had been killed and two captured by Islamist rebels during fierce fighting in Somalia, branding them as "false."
The rebels, residents and government officials said there were sustained clashes on Saturday between Ethiopian soldiers and al Shabaab near the strategic town of Baidoa and in another small town some 130 km (81 miles) away.
Al Shabaab claimed responsibility for killing scores of Ethiopians and capturing two while the governor of the region, based in Baidoa, said it was the al Qaeda-allied rebels who had been routed.
"They engaged our troops after regrouping in tiny pockets outside our area of control," Ethiopian Foreign Ministry spokesman Dina Mufti told Reuters. "Al Shabaab rebels sustained heavy casualties and have retreated ... the battle scene is littered with the bodies of dead enemy combatants.
"It's a statement of survival, a desperate attempt. All claims are false," he said.
Ethiopia sent its forces into the neighbouring Horn of Africa nation in late 2006 and quickly ousted an Islamist administration from the capital Mogadishu.
But the presence of the foreign soldiers fueled an insurgency that mushroomed into al Shabaab. Now under pressure, the group at one time controlled much of the capital Mogadishu and large parts of southern and central Somalia.
The Ethiopians pulled out of Somalia in early 2009, but returned again in force late last year to open another front against al Shabaab after Kenya sent its soldiers into the south of the anarchic country.
The Ethiopians seized Baidoa last month and a number of other strategic towns near its border in the latest incursion.
"They are hiding their casualties just to deceive the Ethiopian civilians whose sons were killed by al Shabaab. They will express grief for the dead who never come back, however you deny their deaths," Sheikh Abdiasis Abu Musab, the spokesman for al Shabaab's military operation, told Reuters.
He said the two captured Ethiopian soldiers would soon be shown to the media.
Al Shabaab broadcast a recording on the Internet on Saturday which it said was the voice of a soldier captured during hours of fighting in the small town of Yurkud on Saturday.
In the recording, a man speaking in the Ethiopian Amharic language, said in a trembling voice that his name was Abera and he had been captured in battle with another man called Tadesse, and that "many of my friends died in the fight".
It was impossible to confirm the authenticity of the audio recording. Both names are common in Ethiopia.
Al Shabaab, a group that has been fighting to topple the Western-backed government and wants to impose its own harsh version of Islamic law, is holding two Kenyan government officials it seized in a cross-border raid. (Additional reporting by Feisal Omar in Mogadishu; Writing by David Clarke; Editing by Karolina Tagaris)