Sunday, August 30, 2009

MOGADISHU, Somalia | Ethiopian troops in heavily armored vehicles crossed into central Somalia on Saturday, witnesses said, taking control of Baladwayne town and advancing on Islamist insurgent positions in the area.

The strategic town is a stronghold of the militant group al-Shabab, which the United States accuses of being al Qaeda’s proxy in the country.

Battles have been raging across central and southern Somalia in recent weeks as pro-government militias try to seize territory back from al-Shabab and another rebel group, Hizbul Islam.

Residents said gunfire broke out in Baladwayne on Saturday as Ethiopian troops arrived alongside Somali government forces.

“At about dawn, hundreds of Ethiopian troops entered the town from different directions, and we heard sporadic gunshots,” resident Hassan Farah said by telephone. “After sunrise, we saw soldiers patrolling the main streets.”

Another local, Farah Ali, said Somali government forces had killed two suspected Islamist rebels during a sweep of the town.

“Government forces were on an operation in the west of Baladwayne, which was an al-Shabab stronghold. Many shops and hotels were looted. Several men were also arrested,” Mr. Ali said.

Locals said al-Shabab’s fighters had mostly withdrawn in the face of the Ethiopian advance.

“Al-Shabab militiamen pulled out of our village before dawn. We were woken by the sound of their battle wagons,” said another resident, Halima Hassan.

“Now a large number of government soldiers and Ethiopian forces are everywhere in the west of Baladwayne. They seem to be establishing a new base.”

Officials in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, routinely deny that Ethiopian soldiers are on Somali soil, although they say they are providing security advice and training for Somalia’s forces.

Ethiopia invaded its Horn of Africa neighbor with tacit U.S. support at the end of 2006 to oust an Islamist movement that was running the capital, Mogadishu, and much of the south.

The Ethiopian military officially withdrew in January, and Somali government leaders declined to comment on reports of their return.

The international community wants to bolster the U.N.-backed government of President Sheik Sharif Ahmed, which is fighting insurgents controlling most central and southern regions.

Violence has killed more than 18,000 Somalis since the start of 2007 and driven another 1.4 million from their homes.

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