JOWHAR (Reuters) â€” About 300 Ethiopian troops crossed into Somalia on Saturday, a top Islamist said, after Islamic fighters who wrested control of Mogadishu moved inland towards the seat of Somalia’s interim government.
Ethiopia immediately denied sending soldiers in but warned the Islamists not to cross the border, where reports say Ethiopia has been massing soldiers for days.
Somalia’s interim President Abdullahi Yusuf, a former warlord, is closely allied with Addis Ababa, which was instrumental in his election after peace talks in Kenya in 2004.
“There are Ethiopian troops just past the border and coming in. Ethiopia is on an offensive passing our borders and bringing war to us. They are backing the [interim government],” Islamic Courts Union Chairman Sharif Sheikh Ahmed told reporters, referring to an incursion in Dollow in southwest Somalia.
Ethiopia denied entering Somalia. “Ethiopia has not crossed the border. So far, the fundamentalists have occupied Baladwayne and are marching towards the Ethiopian border,” Ethiopian minister Bereket Simon said. “Ethiopia hopes that they will not cross.” Ahmed said troops had been crossing in and out further north in Mudug region and the Hiran region, where Baladwayne is.
Bereket declined to say if troops were on the border.
Dollow is at the intersection of the Kenyan, Ethiopian and Somali borders and on the road to Baidoa, where Somalia’s weak interim government is based and has been increasingly surrounded by the Islamist fighters.
Local officials there said about 50 armoured vehicles with Ethiopian soldiers had passed Dollow and 50km further in at Luuq. There were conflicting reports on whether they were heading to Baidoa or Jowhar.
Ethiopia, Washington’s top counterterrorism ally in the Horn of Africa, has backed warlords the Islamists routed from their strongholds in Mogadishu and elsewhere in a swift march from the capital to Baladwayne on the Ethiopian border.
A United Nations report on violations of the arms embargo in place since 1992 on Somalia says Ethiopia thrice this year armed Jowhar warlord Mohammad Dheere and was among a number of nations who sent weapons in defiance of the ban.
Bereket denied any involvement, but said Ethiopia supports the interim government. Largely secular Ethiopia has long been wary of the influence of Islam in the region, and has not hesitated to send its military into Somalia before to fight Islamic forces.
The warlords were widely believed to have been financed with US money in their last stand against the Islamists, which killed 350 people in battles since February.
Earlier on Saturday, Islamic court sources said two warlords, Bashir Raghe and Muse Sudi Yalahow, took a boat to a waiting US vessel which approached the Somali coast.
“They said they would be back in a few days but everybody thinks they may take asylum,” said a senior aide to the Islamist leadership, Abdulrahman Ali Osman.
It was not immediately possible to obtain independent confirmation of the report, and the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet said it had no information and urged caution.
This is the first time Mogadishu has been under the control of a single entity since warlords plunged Somalia into anarchy with the 1991 ouster of dictator Mohammad Siad Barre.Â