ADDIS ABABA Ethiopia will deploy troops inside Somalia for a "brief period" to help Somali and Kenyan forces battling Islamist militants expand their control in southern Somalia, Ethiopian officials said on Friday.
A government official also acknowledged for the first time that a small force had already rolled across the border to carry out reconnaissance missions. Ethiopia had previously denied that scores of military trucks and armoured vehicles had moved in on November 19 and 20.
"We are looking at a brief period of time, weeks. We don't want our deployment to be used for propaganda by the extremists," the government official, who declined to be named, told Reuters after a meeting of regional leaders in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.
The official said Ethiopia is yet to fully deploy its troops, with the mission in its preliminary stage and only reconnaissance and liaison activities carried out so far.
An Ethiopian military official confirmed the mission would be short to avoid "negative consequences." Neither official gave any details on the size or scope of the eventual deployment.
Kenya's incursion into southern Somalia, now in its sixth week, to crush the rebels who control much of the south and centre of the lawless country, has been plagued by heavy rains and the militants' guerrilla-tactics.
A military victory, though, is unlikely to end two decades of anarchy unless the country's feuding politicians and clans want peace.
Mahboub Maalim, head of the regional Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) bloc, said Ethiopia had promised to "assist in the peace and stabilisation activities" ongoing in Somalia, during a heads of state gathering focussing on the war-torn country.
The region's leaders also called on the United Nations to change the mandate of African Union (AMISOM) troops that are currently limited to operations within Mogadishu, and to boost its ceiling of 12,000 soldiers.
The force -- at present comprising Ugandan and Burundian troops -- now has some 9,800 soldiers, but the African Union has requested the U.N. to authorise the deployment of 20,000.
IGAD "calls on the Security Council to enhance the mandate of AMISOM and to authorise its strengthening to a level and size that is appropriate for the consolidation of peace and security in Mogadishu and south and central Somalia and other secured areas," said a statement released after the meeting.
Analysts, however, say there is little appetite for Western countries to stump up more funding for an extended mission.
"It's difficult to see how that could happen anytime soon given that the salaries of the soldiers are paid for by the West. There's no stomach for giving any more money to AMISOM," said a Western diplomat working in the region.
The bloc also urged Somalia's weak Transitional Federal Government (TFG) to take advantage of recent gains and offensives and move into newly liberated areas.
Experts say President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed's government has done little to convince its neighbours it is capable of extending its sphere of power beyond the capital.
The unelected government's legitimacy is already battered by internal power struggles and corruption. Its reliance on yet another foreign incursion might damage its credibility further if there is no swift political follow up.
IGAD "urges the TFG leadership to take advantage of the expanded liberated territories and populations to foster security, enhance national reconciliation, and consolidate political and administrative control," the IGAD statement said.