MOGADISHU (Reuters) - Ethiopian troops who left Somalia last month after a more than two-year intervention have crossed back over the border to prepare an assault against Islamic militants, residents said on Tuesday.
Addis Ababa denied their account as false and malicious.
Residents in the town of Baladwayne, near the Ethiopia border, said soldiers had moved about 12 miles (20 km) into Somalia to join forces with former rulers of Baladwayne whom the hardline insurgent al Shabaab group ousted at the end of 2008.
“We have been frightened for the last 36 hours because Ethiopian troops and the ousted Baladwayne authorities have come closer,” local elder Abdirizak Ali told Reuters from Baladwayne town.
“We anticipate attacks from those troops.”
Addis Ababa has said it is keeping a heavy troop presence on the border in case of threats to its security.
But it denied crossing back, after a highly-publicised withdrawal from Somalia completed on January 26. “The army is within the Ethiopian border. There is no intention to go back,” minister and government spokesman Bereket Simon said, calling the report a “wicked” distraction from progress in Somalia.
Although the presence or not of Ethiopian soldiers on Somali soil is a highly sensitive subject for both nations, diplomats have said privately they would not be surprised if Addis Ababa made some minor incursions to deter the Islamist rebels.
Witnesses have, however, confused soldiers in the past, as Somali soldiers have borrowed Ethiopian uniforms, or vice-versa. Also, Ethiopians from the border are ethnically Somali.
Al Shabaab, which means youth in Arabic and is on Washington’s list of terrorist organisations, took advantage of Ethiopia’s final pullout of Somalia a week ago to take more towns and increase its territorial control in the south.
ISLAMISTS CONDEMN PEACEKEEPERS
Though it has held Baladwayne, near the Ethiopian border, for several months, it took Baidoa, the seat of the Somali parliament, on January 26, the same day that Ethiopian soldiers left and crossed back over the border.
Al Shabaab has been holding demonstrations this week against Somalia’s new President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, a moderate Islamist whom they accuse of selling out to the West.
Ahmed was elected at the weekend as part of a U.N.-brokered plan to try and form a unity government and bring peace to Somalia for the first time since 1991. His main challenge is to defeat, isolate or somehow bring on board al Shabaab.
A student in Baladwayne, Habiba Ismail, said it appeared al Shabaab fighters had been planning to regroup there, which might have prompted an Ethiopian incursion. “Some al Shabaab from Mogadishu have already arrived. Others are on the way.”
The Ethiopians, together with militia loyal to the former governor of Baladwayne, were at Kalaber, a village some 19 miles (30km) north of Baladwayne towards the border, the locals said.
In Merka, south of Mogadishu, al Shabaab gathered hundreds for a rally against the new Somali president on Tuesday.
In Baidoa, al Shabaab’s national spokesman Sheikh Mukhtar Robow Abu Mansoor said the group would fight a jihad until there was rule by Islamic sharia law across Somalia.
He also accused African Union (AU) peacekeepers of killing 40 people in Mogadishu on Monday when they opened fire after being hit by a roadside bomb. Mogadishu’s deputy mayor said 39 had died, while medics spoke of at least 16.
“We shall oust (AU mission) AMISOM by force as we did to the Ethiopian troops who were more powerful than them,” he said.
The AU denied opening fire, saying the insurgents themselves had shot and killed civilians after the explosion.
Additional reporting by Ibrahim Mohamed in Mogadishu, and Tsegaye Tadesse in Addis Ababa; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; editing by Ralph Boulton
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