Residents in the Somali town of Beledweyne are reporting that Ethiopian soldiers, who had apparently seized the town two days earlier, have partially withdrawn from the formerly rebel-held western part of town. Ethiopia's alleged military action on Saturday has been condemned by influential clan elders.
Somalia's Shabelle Radio says residents in Beledweyne, near the Ethiopian border in the Hiran region, saw a large number of Ethiopian troops withdrawing from the western side of town.
It was not immediately clear why the troops withdrew. But the report comes just two days after hundreds of Ethiopian soldiers allegedly crossed over the border and joined other Ethiopian troops deployed inside the government-controlled east side of Beledweyne.
Residents say the Ethiopians chased out Islamist insurgents from western Beledweyne early Saturday and seized the entire town.
Western Beledweyne is divided from the east by a river. The fiercely-contested area had been under the control of hard-line Islamist groups since Ethiopia ended its two-year occupation of Somalia in January.
The two main hard-line insurgents groups, Hisbul Islam and its al-Qaida-linked ally al-Shabab, also control many other key towns in southern Somalia.
In late July, Somali government forces launched a successful offensive to take full control of Beledweyne. But less than three weeks later, Somalia's hard-line Islamist group, Hisbul Islam, re-took western Beledweyne, dealing a blow to Ethiopia's hopes of keeping the strategically important border town out of insurgent hands.
The government in Addis Ababa denies any of its troops are actively engaged inside Somalia. And the Somali military commander in Beledweyne says only Somali forces are in town.
But U.S.-based Horn of Africa commentator and observer Michael Weinstein says Ethiopia is believed to be receiving tacit approval from Washington to provide militarily support to government and pro-government militias fighting to oust Hisbul Islam and al-Shabab from various Somali regions.
The United States previously backed Ethiopia's military intervention in Somalia in 2006, which ousted the Islamic Courts Union from power, but gave rise to Somalia's bloody insurgency.
"The U.S. is backing a strategy to have Ethiopians come in [to Somalia] and not fight alongside these militias, but to accompany them, give them logistical help, man checkpoints, and do arm searches," said Weinstein. "And this is a response to the frustration over the stand-off in Mogadishu - trying to have another track to displace the opposition."
Since early May, al-Shabab and Hisbul Islam have been trying to topple the U.N.-backed government in Mogadishu. But their attempts have been blocked, mostly by the presence of 5,000 African Union peacekeepers in the capital.
The four-month conflict has deepened Somalia's humanitarian crisis, which was already one of the worst in the world with millions displaced and in dire need of food aid and other assistance.
On Sunday, the spokesman of the influential Hawiye clan elders, Abdirisaq Sheik Mohamed, warned that inviting Ethiopian troops to conduct operations inside Somalia would badly discredit the government of Islamist President Sharif Sheik Ahmed.
The clan elder says if the Somali government is seeking help from Ethiopian forces to stay in power, then there is no difference between this government and the previous Ethiopia-backed government of Abdullahi Yusuf.
President Sharif is a former Islamic Courts Union leader, who had fought against Yusuf and the Ethiopian occupation of Somalia.
President Yusuf resigned and Sheik Sharif joined the government last year, under a U.N.-sponsored peace deal that brought more Islamists into the government. Hard-line groups were not impressed and dismissed President Sharif and his government as western puppets.