Noose tightens on Somali rebels
Mogadishu - Somalia's Islamist Shabaab rebels faced growing encirclement by regional armies on Monday, as the war-torn nation's defence minister welcomed deployment of foreign forces against the fighters.
"We welcome Ethiopian troops - if they have entered Somalia - and any other country that contributes forces to fight against the Shabaab militants, as long as they do not violate our sovereignty," Hussein Arab Isse said.
Local elders at the weekend reported several convoys of Ethiopian troops moved into Somalia's central Galgudud and Hiran regions, while witnesses said lines of trucks also crossed via Kenya into the far south.
Hardline Shabaab insurgents control much of southern Somalia, but are also battling both the Western-backed government in Mogadishu and Kenyan troops in the far south, who crossed the border last month to attack rebel strongholds.
"We need help from the international community in the fight against the al-Qaeda linked militants," Isse told reporters late on Sunday, after returning from meetings in Ethiopia.
However, Addis Ababa has continued to deny reports of what appears to be their first large-scale troop deployment here since their 2006 US-backed invasion of Somalia.
"Ethiopia has not entered Somalia... In the past, people might have seen light reconnaissance teams and confused them with troop deployments," Ethiopian government spokesperson Bereket Simon told AFP Monday.
But Bereket also scoffed at Shabaab threats on Sunday that the al-Qaeda linked gunmen would "break the necks" of Ethiopian troops who crossed into Somalia.
"I know of no time when Al-Shabaab has been short of such braggartism," Bereket said. "Ethiopia in the past has done its job and came out as per its plan - Al-Shabaab knows what Ethiopia can do, so that doesn't worry us at all."
Ethiopia's 2006 invasion sparked a bloody uprising, and troops pulled out three years later after failing to restore order in its lawless neighbour, which has lacked a functioning government for two decades.
Soldiers from Uganda and Burundi in the 9 700-strong Africa Union force are also fighting Shabaab gunmen in the anarchic capital.
The decision on whether Ethiopia will send troops will be made Friday at a heads of state meeting in Addis Ababa of the regional body, the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD).
"We are waiting for what IGAD decides and without that decision, Ethiopia is not going to act unilaterally," Bereket said.