MOGADISHU, Somalia – Witnesses said Tuesday that Ethiopian troops had crossed the border into war-ravaged Somalia and appeared to be stationing themselves in a town at a strategic crossroads. Ethiopia denied the reports.
Any substantial movement of Ethiopian troops into Somali territory could hand Somali Islamist insurgents a propaganda coup. They used nationalist and religious rhetoric to help recruit fighters against the previous Somali administration, portraying the Islamist cause as a defense of Somalia against Ethiopian invaders, who are largely Christian.
A witness said he saw 12 military vehicles, but the number of troops was not clear, nor was it clear if they were a vanguard of a larger force or an attempt to protect the porous border from the Islamic insurgents.
“Our troops have not returned to Somalia,” Ethiopian Foreign Ministry spokesman Wahde Belay said. “Our troops are on our side of the border.”
There have been sporadic reports of Ethiopian troops crossing into Somalia since early this year, when Ethiopia pulled out the forces it had sent there in 2006 to restore the U.N.-backed government to power in the capital, Mogadishu. Islamist fighters, who had seized the capital along with much of southern Somalia, were outgunned by Ethiopian firepower but began an Iraq-style insurgency.
Since then, Somalia has changed administrations, but the insurgents have continued to attack government forces and fighting intensified this month.
Witnesses said they saw Ethiopian troops in the Somali town of Kalabeyr, 14 miles (22 kilometers) from the Ethiopian border and 11 miles (18 kilometers) north of Belet Weyne, the provincial capital of Somalia’s Hiran region. Kalabeyr lies at the junction of a road that links southern, central and northern Somalia to the Ethiopian border.
Local bus driver Farah Ahmed Adan said he saw 12 military vehicles.
“Some of them were digging trenches while others were guarding the whole area,” he said. “They stopped me and checked my car and then ordered me to move.”
Resident Tabane Abdi Ali said the troops spoke Ethiopia’s Amharic language and their vehicles carried Ethiopian number plates. Another resident, Fadum Duale, said the troops crossed the border late on Monday night and appeared to be taking up defensive positions.
The African Union and Somali Information Minister Farhan Ali Mahmud would not comment on the reports of Ethiopian troop arrivals and United Nations officials did not return calls seeking comment. The government directly controls only a few blocks of the capital, Mogadishu. Allied militias control parts of central Somalia.
Islamist forces, strengthened by at least two defections of groups of government soldiers, have attacked Somali forces in Mogadishu and seized territory in central Somalia in recent days.
The U.S. State Department says some Somali insurgent leaders have links to al-Qaida.
The Somali parliament elected a new president earlier this year, Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, a former Islamist fighter who signed a peace deal with the previous administration.
Ethiopia remains eager to secure key border towns and to preserve the current Somali government. The insurgents have ethnic ties to Ethiopian rebels and believe that some oil-rich Ethiopian territory should be part of a greater Somalia.
Associated Press Writers Katharine Houreld, Tom Maliti and Malkhadir. M. Muhumed in Nairobi, Kenya and Samson Haileyesus in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia contributed to this report.
Ethiopian forces back in Somalia, locals say
(CNN) — Ethiopian forces returned to Somalia on Tuesday, seizing control of a Somali border town, a local journalist told CNN.
The Ethiopians rolled into the town of Kalabeyr early Tuesday in 15 military vehicles, some equipped with heavy artillery, a town elder told the journalist. They established vehicle checkpoints throughout the town and positioned themselves in the surrounding mountains, according to the journalist, who spoke to CNN from a nearby town.
Both Somalia and Ethiopia have denied the reports.
“This is another fabricated story,” Ethiopian Foreign Ministry spokesman Wahade Bela said. “Our troops are still in our territory.”
A spokesman for Somalia’s new president, Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, dismissed the report as propaganda from the Islamist militia, Al-Shabab.
Ethiopia invaded Somalia in 2006, with the support of Somalia’s weak transitional government, and ousted the Islamic Courts Union, which had taken control of the country months earlier. But Ethiopia’s presence was highly unpopular and aggravated extremist groups, who fought a bloody battle to oust the neighboring country’s forces.
Ethiopia pulled its troops out of Somalia earlier this year, making way for a new Somali transitional government led by one of the former Islamic Courts Union leaders.
It is unclear why the Ethiopians went into Kalabeyr, which is in Somalia’s Hiiran province. It may be a move to protect their own interests against the Islamist militant group, Al-Shabab, which recently seized control of several towns outside Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu.
Kalabeyr has never been under Al-Shabab’s control, but there are concerns that the militants could advance on the nearby city of Beledweyn, the provincial capital of Hiiran.
Al-Shabab recently seized the towns of Jowhar and Mahaday in the Middle Shabelle Region, which adjoins Hiiran.
Al-Shabab — once the armed wing of the Islamic Courts Union — has been designated as a terrorist group by the United States, which says the group is affiliated with the al Qaeda terrorist network. The United States backed the Ethiopian invasion that drove the ICU from power in 2006.