Witnesses: Ethiopians troops pouring into Somalia

December 10, 2008

The Ethiopians’ advance comes just weeks before they are scheduled to withdraw after an unpopular, two-year presence here. The Ethiopians are integral to protecting the Western-backed government, and their planned withdrawal at the end of the month will likely herald the administration’s collapse.

Dahir Dhere, a Somali military spokesman, said the Ethiopians are “helping the Somali people and they will get rid of al-Shabab,” referring to the extremist Islamic group that is advancing steadily toward the capital, Mogadishu.

The phone of Ethiopian foreign ministry spokesman Wahde Belay rang unanswered.

Somalia has been in chaos for nearly two decades, and the country’s Western-backed transitional government has failed to assert any real control since it was formed in 2004. Ethiopia — the region’s military powerhouse — sent thousands of troops here in late 2006 to help oust the Islamic extremists, who soon launched an Iraq-style insurgency.

The Somali troops and their Ethiopian allies have come under near-daily attack from the militants.

The Associated Press interviewed nearly a dozen residents of towns near the Somali-Ethiopian border, who say troops from Ethiopia have been streaming into the country in recent days.

In Balan Bal, another town on the countries’ border, hundreds of Ethiopian troops riding 14 military vehicles entered the city Monday, said resident Ahmed Sheik Roble.

“The Ethiopian troops took positions at a former military base and a police station,” he said. “Some of the troops started to dig trenches while others started to patrol the city.”

The United States fears that Somalia could be a terrorist breeding ground, and accuses al-Shabab of harboring the al-Qaida-linked terrorists who allegedly blew up the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.

Ethiopia recently announced it would withdraw its troops by the end of this month, leaving Somalia’s government vulnerable to insurgents, who have captured most of southern Somalia and even move freely in the capital.

The Shabab declared an Islamic state in a region of southern Somalia on Sunday, establishing posts including a governor, security official and chief judge, according to the U.S-based SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors extremist sites. The declaration is the latest sign of the Shabab’s steady advance.