By Abdi Sheikh
MOGADISHU, Nov 4 (Reuters) - More Ethiopian troops are pouring into Somalia to join local government soldiers in a battle against Islamist insurgents that has sent tens of thousands of people fleeing Mogadishu, witnesses said on Sunday.
"Convoys of Ethiopian troops have been passing. I counted 30 army vehicles," shopkeeper Farah Abdikarim said from Afgoye, describing columns he saw on Saturday driving east from the town on a 40 km (25 mile) road to the Somali capital.
Addis Ababa officially recognises having about 4,000 soldiers in Somalia, where it is supporting President Abdullahi Yusuf’s government against Islamist rebels. But Somalis and regional diplomats say there are far more than that.
Reinforcements generally drive in from east Ethiopia, past Baidoa — seat of the Somali parliament and headquarters for the government while the Islamists ruled Mogadishu for six months in 2006 — then on to the coastal capital.
An upsurge of fighting in Mogadishu in recent days has displaced some 90,000 residents from their homes, adding to the exodus of 400,000 inhabitants in earlier bouts of fighting, according to United Nations figures.
Many of the refugee have fled to Afgoye, or stopped in makeshift shelters on the road between.
"On Friday, we saw 60 army lorries overloaded with well-armed Ethiopian troops. New troops have been going into Mogadishu for the last four days," Farah added.
Mogadishu residents confirmed the movements.
"I have seen 20 Ethiopian vehicles as they came in behind Mogadishu University," student Osman Suleiman. "They were heading to Maslah (a base in north Mogadishu). Some were covered with tents, while others were carrying soldiers."
Ethiopia has said publicly on numerous occasions it wants to pull out of Somalia, but will not leave until an African Union (AU) force is up to full strength.
The AU approved a peackeeping mission of 8,000 soldiers earlier in the year, but only 1,600 Ugandans have so far arrived in Somalia, to the frustration of diplomats in the region.
Other African nations have reneged on promises to send troops due to fears over violence in Somalia, logistical problems, and greater enthusiasm for contributing to peacekeeping in Darfur where there is U.N. backing.
Officials in Addis Ababa never publicly confirm troop reinforcements in Somalia, just repeating their stated policy to withdraw when the AU force is up to strength or when Yusuf’s government is considered strong and stable.
Inhabitants said there was more fighting in Mogadishu overnight into Sunday, although the gunfire appeared to come from skirmishes rather than major battles.
There were no immediate reports of casualties.