Tensions are rising in the Horn of Africa amid unconfirmed reports that several-hundred Ethiopian troops have crossed the border into Somalia to confront an Islamic group that controls large areas of southern Somalia, including Mogadishu. Analysts say they fear even the perception of Ethiopian meddling could end up strengthening the Islamists' grip on power and possibly ignite a regional conflict. VOA Correspondent Alisha Ryu reports from our East Africa Bureau in Nairobi.
Somalia's Union of Islamic Courts alleges about 300 Ethiopian troops in 50 armored vehicles crossed into southern Somalia early Saturday.
The convoy reportedly headed toward the town of Baidoa, about 200 kilometers north of Mogadishu, where Somalia's President Abdullahi Yusuf and his fledgling transitional federal government are based.
Ethiopia denies the reports.
But former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia David Shinn says the Islamists' claim is plausible. Ethiopia, which fought a bitter war with Somalia nearly three decades ago, has made such incursions in the past.
"Whenever Ethiopia has felt that its 1,000-mile long border with Somalia is in any way threatened, it has sent small number of troops across," he said. "It is also true that President Yusuf has a close relationship with Ethiopia. He has been considered by some to receive support from Ethiopia for his transitional federal government."
Ethiopia's military has been on heightened alert since early this month, when the Islamic Courts' militia captured Mogadishu from an alliance of secular factional leaders.
Another U.S.-based expert, Michael Weinstein, says if the Ethiopian incursion took place, it may be a sign that Addis Ababa is deeply concerned about the possibility of Somalia's growing Islamic movement spilling over the border into Ethiopia.
"My first impulse is to think that this amassing of Ethiopian troops along the border and this possible incursion is most likely a warning, not to try to spread Islamist influence into Ethiopia, which has a 40 percent Muslim population," he said. "But if I can go on, it all depends on whether Washington is actually backing the Ethiopian move. If that is the case, then it may actually be a move to protect the TFG [transitional federal government] in Baidoa."
Largely secular Ethiopia is a key ally of the United States in its fight against global terrorism and it is alleged that the two governments worked together to back the self-styled, anti-terror alliance of factional leaders who fought the Union of Islamic Courts.
The United States believes that radical Islamic Courts leaders are harboring al-Qaida operatives and are determined to turn Somalia into a training ground for Muslim extremists.
The Islamic courts have the financial backing of influential Somali businessmen, but some Western intelligence officials say outside funding comes from hard-line Islamists in Arab countries.
When the anti-terror alliance failed to check the advance of the Islamic militia, analysts say Washington was forced to come up with another strategy for Somalia. The answer was to assemble an international contact group to find ways of supporting the transitional government in Baidoa and identify potential negotiating partners among the moderate leaders in the Union of Islamic Courts.
But David Shinn says Somali President Yusuf and his government do not have the trust of the moderates and their supporters.
"There is a great deal of distrust among the various clans in Somalia," he said. "President Abdullahi Yusuf comes from the Darod clan and the groups that are in control in Mogadishu are Hawiye, and in particular, a sub-group called Habr Gedir. They have traditionally had difficult relationships."
There is potentially another obstacle to international efforts to negotiate a power-sharing agreement between the Islamic Courts and the transitional government.
Despite threats and numerous public demonstrations against deploying foreign peacekeepers in Somalia, the parliament in Baidoa last week approved the deployment of African Union peacekeepers in the country.
President Yusuf says the government cannot operate without the help of foreign peacekeepers. But many Somalis say they are beginning to believe hard-line clerics, who insist the president and his Ethiopian allies, with the support of the United States, would use the peacekeeping mission as a way to take control in Somalia.
Michael Weinstein says he believes African Union and western diplomats, who are backing the peacekeeping proposal, are underestimating a resurgence of Somali nationalism being exploited by hardliners in the Islamic Courts to consolidate power.
"Nationalism does not have to be tied to a state," he said. "You can have nationalism is a society that is stateless and anybody, external or internal, who does not recognize this could make very serious mistakes. I think the anti-Ethiopian theme resonates very deeply in Somalia. If the Ethiopians and perhaps Washington - and we do not know exactly what is going on there - discount this nationalism, it could backfire in their faces.
David Shinn agrees that the presence of peacekeepers in Somalia right now would do nothing but anger most Somalis.
"I think the whole concept of sending a peacekeeping force is probably a non-starter," he said. "I just do not think it would be acceptable and it would be too difficult to identify any coalition of troops that would be acceptable to the majority of Somalis."
Both experts say they believe the best thing the international community can do to ensure that Somalia does not spiral further out of control is to develop a policy of massive aid to the Somali people and stay out of Somalia's internal affairs.