MOGADISHU (Reuters) - New convoys of heavily-armed Ethiopian troops have crossed into Somalia and are heading for central areas, residents said Sunday, days after Addis Ababa said it planned to send troops to help Somali and Kenya forces fighting Islamist insurgents.
Ethiopia, which intervened in Somalia between 2006 and 2009, said Friday that it would deploy troops inside Somalia again for a "brief period.
An Ethiopian government official also acknowledged Friday that a small force was already there on a reconnaissance mission. Ethiopia had previously denied scores of military trucks and armoured vehicles had entered Somalia on November 19 and 20.
Sunday, residents from towns in central Somalia said they had seen new, larger convoys.
"We have seen heavily armed Ethiopian troops with tanks heading to Guriel and Baladwayne. There are many more of them and (they are) more armed than last week," Ahmed Muhudin Ugas told Reuters from Balanbal town.
"Since yesterday afternoon I counted over 100 armed trucks with tanks; their convoy has not stopped yet."
A senior official with the pro-Mogadishu Sufi militia group Ahlu Sunna Waljamaca also confirmed the deployment.
"Yes, Ethiopian troops are here and more have entered central Somalia," the official, who declined to be named, told Reuters by phone. "Al Shabaab will be ousted from central Somalia but when and how are political points we do not want to disclose now."
Kenya sent troops into Somalia last month to crush al Shabaab, accusing the militant network of frequent attacks on its security forces and tourists inside Kenya.
Ethiopian soldiers previously went into Somalia in 2006, and left the country in early 2009 after ousting the Islamist Islamic Courts Union (ICU) from de facto power in Mogadishu.
They were dogged by accusations that their intervention, hugely unpopular with Somalis, was a rallying call for militias such as al Shabaab, who were not as powerful at that time.
This time, Ethiopia insists the deployment will be brief, although it has not given details on the size of the contingent.
Another resident in Guriel, in the central Galgadud region, said he had seen two different convoys of Ethiopian forces.
"Last night there was a convoy of Ethiopian troops that reached the town," Abdinur Osman Moalim told Reuters. "I don't know their number, but early in the morning we saw more than 40 vehicles of armed Ethiopian troops."
Editing by George Obulutsa and; Alessandra Rizzo