Somalia’s defense minister and witnesses along the Ethiopia-Somalia border have confirmed the presence of Ethiopian troops inside Somalia, according to Voice of America. Residents in the town of Guriel said a convoy of troops entered the country with heavy artillery and tanks.
The addition of Ethiopian troops in Somalia could open up a third front in the fight against the extremist Al Shabaab militia. Kenya made an incursion into southern Somalia in mid-October and Africa Union peacekeepers have made a base in the capital, Mogadishu.
However, a Somali government spokesperson denied that Ethiopian troops had entered the country, AP reported. Ethiopia has also denied moving into Somalia.
The spokesperson, Abdrahman Omar Osman, said the troops would only be welcome if a bi-lateral agreement had been struck with the Somali government or if they had an international mandate. Neither agreement currently exists.
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But some analysts say the denials are an attempt to downplay the troops' alleged presence because of the rocky history between Somalia and Ethiopia. Many in the government fear Ethiopia’s presence could score a propaganda victory for Al Shabaab.
Ethiopia’s troops were last in Somalia in 2006 during a widely unpopular attempt to unseat the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), according to Voice of America. The ICU was seen as a threat to the current Transitional Federal Government.
The following two-year occupation by Ethiopia angered many Somalis, and many Ethiopian troops were accused of shelling residential neighborhoods and shooting indiscriminately when attacked, according to the Washington Post.
But despite the tense relations between Ethiopia and Somalia, not all Somalis are against its presence in their country. The New York Times interviewed “many Somalis” who said any help, even from Ethiopians, is welcome in the fight against Shabaab.
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“What we need right now is only peace, and we don’t care about the identity of the peacemakers,” said Abdulle Ismail, a resident in the town of Guriel, according to The New York Times.
Ethiopia has one of the largest armies in Africa and the country, along with Kenya, has long blamed chaos in Somalia for hampering economic development in the region. Al Shabaab, which is linked to Al Qaeda, has been fighting since 2008 to topple the week Somali government.