JOWHAR, Somalia, (Reuters) – About 300 Ethiopian troops crossed into Somalia on Saturday, a top Islamist said, after Islamic fighters who wrested control of Mogadishu moved inland toward the seat of Somalia’s interim government.
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,” Islamic Courts Union Chairman Sharif Sheikh Ahmed told reporters, citing what he described as an incursion in Dollow in southwest Somalia on Saturday morning.
Ethiopia denied sending troops across the border.
“Ethiopia has not crossed the border. So far, the fundamentalists have occupied Baladwayne and are marching toward the Ethioipian border,” said Bereket Simon, a minister without portfolio and close ally of Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.
“Ethiopia hopes that they will not cross the border,” he added.
Dollow is near the intersection of the Kenyan, Ethiopian and Somali borders and is on the road to Baidoa, where Somalia’s weak interim government is based and has been increasingly surrounded by the Islamist militias.
Ethiopia, Washington’s top counterterrorism ally in the Horn of Africa, had backed warlords the Islamists have routed from their strongholds in Mogadishu in a swift march from the coastal capital to Baladwayne near the Ethiopian border.
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 have been supported and armed by Ethiopia as a proxy force, and are widely believed to have been financed with U.S. 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 U.S. 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.
“Everybody is running to their houses to take their guns. Bashir Raghe’s house is being looted.”
It was not immediately possible to obtain independent confirmation of the report.
Asked about the report, Commander Jeff Breslau, a spokesman for the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, said he had no information and advised to handle the information “with caution”. He said there was a joint taskforce patrolling the region led by Pakistan which included U.S. Navy ships.
The Islamists say they have no interest in starting their own government and want talks with the existing administration, but have imposed sharia law wherever they have arrived.
In a statement on Saturday, the courts said they wanted to set up a police force, an authority to demobilise militias and a new administration “effective and accountable to its people”.
They said they can make Mogadishu “sufficiently secure” to host the government, and threatened to end talks with the government if a plan to allow in foreign peacekeepers proceeds.
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 Mohamed Siad Barre.