NAIROBI, (Reuters) – Somalia’s government has reinforced its militias and ally Ethiopia has sent more troops over the border days before talks with powerful Islamists who threaten its slim authority, experts said on Thursday.
Those moves, along with government reluctance to negotiate with the Islamists because of their hard-line leadership, have raised fears both sides are headed for military confrontation.
President Abdullahi Yusuf’s government and the Islamists, who took Mogadishu last month after defeating a group of U.S.-backed warlords, are due for a second round of Arab League-brokered talks on power-sharing in Khartoum on Saturday.
But Yusuf’s government and the Islamists, who want to impose strict sharia law to tame anarchy in the Horn of Africa nation of 10 million, are deeply distrustful of each other.
Roughly 2,000 Ethiopian troops earlier this week crossed in at Dollow, where the borders of Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia converge, along with several tanks to complement about 2,000 soldiers already there, various sources said.
“They had crossed with tanks, about a dozen, and about another 2,000-3,000 men,” a Western diplomat said.
A military expert who monitors security daily and a government official based in Baidoa — the government’s temporary base and only outpost — confirmed that.
“The Ethiopian troops are in several locations within Somalia, scattered all over in Dollow, Bulahawo, Wajid and in other remote locations on the outskirts of Baidoa,” the Somali government official said.
“Most of the troops are ethnic Somali Ethiopians,” he said.
The sources declined to be named because their positions do not allow them to speak to the press on sensitive matters.
On Wednesday, defeated warlord Mohamed Dheere handed over about 420 fighters and 35 “technicals” — pickups mounted with heavy weapons –to the government.
“The plan is for his militias to be reinforced and then move forward to Baledogle,” the military expert told Reuters, referring to a strategic town on the Baidoa-Mogadishu road.
The Islamists are still after the beaten warlords. Eight people were killed when they attacked the rural hideout of warlord Mohamed Qanyare, north of Mogadishu, including five gunmen who died when their pickup truck hit a landmine.
Ethiopia — which has branded the Islamists “terrorists” — on Thursday again denied entering Somalia.
“Ethiopia categorically denies that its troops have crossed into Somalia. It is the usual fabrication being dished out by Somali Islamists to confuse the international community,” Ethiopian Defence Ministry spokesman Dawit Assefa said.
Yusuf has long been backed by Ethiopia, including in battles against the Islamists’ hardline leader, Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, in the years after warlords toppled dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991 and set 15 years of anarchy loose.
Western diplomats worked hard on Thursday to make sure the government attends the talks. But they said it appeared Yusuf did not want to go, or even send a high-level delegation.
“He’s just been very much in his military mindset these days,” a European diplomat said. “If they do not go, then my fear is there will be some kind of military confrontation.”
A draft U.N. Security Council resolution obtained by Reuters appears to show support for Yusuf’s African Union-backed request for foreign peacekeepers and a limited waiver of a 1992 arms embargo, required to allow them in.
The Islamists refuse to accept foreign troops and some in their ranks have threatened a holy war should Ethiopia in particular come to Somalia.