Ethiopia: No troops in Somalia

2009-05-19 22:23

Mogadishu - Witnesses said on Tuesday that Ethiopian troops have crossed the border into war-ravaged Somalia and appear to be stationing themselves in a town at a strategic crossroads. Ethiopia denied the reports.

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 Somalia's Islamic insurgents.

Ethiopian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wahde Belay, however, said Tuesday's reports were untrue.

'Our troops are on our side'

"That information is false," he said. "Our troops have not returned to Somalia. Our troops are on our side of the border."

Witnesses said they saw Ethiopian troops in the Somali town of Kalabeyr, 22km from the Ethiopian border and 18km north of Belet Weyne, the provincial capital of Somalia's Hiran region. Kalabeyr lies at a strategic 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."

Defensive positions

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.

Somali Information Minister Farhan Ali Mahmud would not comment on the reports of Ethiopian troop arrivals. 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.

Nationalist and religious rhetoric

The US State Department says some Somali insurgent leaders have links to al-Qaeda.

Any substantial movement of Ethiopian troops into Somali territory could hand the Islamists a propaganda coup. They used nationalist and religious rhetoric to help recruit fighters against the previous Somali administration, portraying the Islamist cause as a defence of Somalia against Ethiopian invaders, who are largely Christian.

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.