ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) - Addis Adaba acknowledged on Wednesday its military personnel had been carrying out “reconnaissance” missions into neighbouring Somalia, where any incursions from Ethiopia always inflame passions.
Ethiopia sent thousands of troops into Somalia in 2006 to help topple an Islamist movement holding Mogadishu and most of the south. That drew protests from some in the Muslim world and infuriated the Islamists, who regrouped to launch an insurgency.
Ethiopia pulled out early this year, but kept a heavy border presence to counter any threat from the Islamists, who are battling to topple the Western-backed Somali government.
“When there is a threat, you can send some scouts here and there,” Bereket Simon, the Ethiopian government’s head of information, told reporters in the first confirmation from Addis Ababa that it had sent people back in.
Witnesses on the Somali side of the border have spoken of seeing hundreds of Ethiopian soldiers, with heavy equipment.
Bereket denied that.
“Apart from doing reconnaissance, which is normal in these circumstances, the government of Ethiopia is not engaged in any way in Somalia ... When the terrorists and the extremists were moving fast, we’ve been standing on alert on our border and following what is happening.”
The militant al Shabaab movement is spearheading Somalia’s insurgency, and has regained control of some areas of the south.
The government has, however, been beating back al Shabaab from some of its strongholds in Mogadishu. The rebels have been joined by hundreds of foreign jihadists, Somalis say.
“After a brief offensive by al Shabaab and some misfits of the world in Somalia, we have observed that the Transitional Federal Government has been able to withhold the movement of al Shabaab through central Somalia,” Bereket said.
“All is not rosy for al Shabaab. The terrorists have lost momentum for the time being.”
In Mogadishu, street fighting continued on Thursday, with al Shabaab capturing the strategic Yaqshid police station in the north of the capital, residents said.
President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed urged moderate Islamist group Ahlu Sunna Waljamaca, which is led by Sufi clerics and is fighting al Shabaab in central Somalia, to formally join with government forces.
“We urge Ahlu Sunna to give us a hand. The opposition groups have nothing to do with Islam,” he told reporters and scores of Sufi religious leaders at the hilltop presidential palace.
“They are using the name of Islam to behead people and loot their property — what sort of Muslims are the opposition? Ninety-five percent of them do not know how to look up a single verse in the Koran.”
The United Nations said on Thursday that the latest fighting in Mogadishu had displaced 91,000 people.