Somalia's Transitional Federal Government is denying reports that Ethiopian troops have taken the town of Beledweyn from al-Shabab militants in the central Hiran region. A government spokesman says there is no Ethiopian military presence in Somalia.
Somali government spokesman Mohamed Nor Dabaashe issued a statement Tuesday refuting eyewitness reports that hundreds of Ethiopians soldiers carried out operations against al-Shabab militants around Beledweyne in recent days, and have entered the strategic town near the Ethiopian-Somali border.
Dabaashe called the information "false" and said there were no Ethiopian forces inside Somali territory. The spokesman said government troops are amassing in the town of Kalabeyr, another key junction that links much of Somalia to the Ethiopian border, preparing to attack al-Shabab forces in Hiran.
VOA sources in Beledweyne say a large number of Ethiopians crossed the border several times in armored trucks last week. The sources say the troops, along with some Somali government forces, took Beledweyne peacefully Monday after the militants withdrew.
If Addis Ababa has sent troops into Somalia, analysts say the timing suggests it may be aimed at achieving two objectives: First, to draw al-Shabab's attention and resources away from the Somali capital, Mogadishu, where the al-Qaida-linked group has recently redoubled their effort to topple the Somali government. And second, to possibly pave the way for the start of the long-awaited offensive by pro-government forces to capture ground from al-Shabab in several regions of Somalia including Hiran, Galgadud, Gedo, Bakool, and Middle Shabelle.
A detailed plan of the offensive was reportedly discussed in late July in Addis Ababa at a meeting sponsored by the regional East African Intergovernmental Authority on Development bloc.
Al-Shabab is the most powerful armed group in Somalia, controlling most of the country's south and the capital. It is considered a terrorist group by several Western countries, including the United States.
Al-Shabab was once a part of the Islamic Courts Union, which briefly ruled Somalia in 2006. With U.S. support, Ethiopia militarily intervened late that year to oust the courts from power and to install the U.N.-backed Transitional Federal Government in Mogadishu.
Addis Ababa withdrew its military in 2009 after Islamist leader and now-President Sharif Sheik Ahmed joined the government, promising to bring an end to the Islamist insurgency. But allegations of gross human rights violations by troops during the Ethiopian occupation created deep resentment and anger in Somalia.
Many western analysts have since suggested that the occupation helped swell al-Shabab's ranks and gave the group's radical leaders the credibility they needed to attract the support of groups like al-Qaida.
Meanwhile, an al-Shabab military spokesman in Mogadishu, Abdiaziz Abu Musaab, confirmed the group had carried out Monday's mortar attack on African Union peacekeepers guarding the presidential palace. The attack killed four Ugandan soldiers and wounded several others.
Hinting that al-Shabab may be receiving intelligence from inside the presidential palace, the al-Shabab commander claims the group fired the mortar deliberately and accurately at a Ugandan troop position.
The spokesman for the peacekeeping mission called the mortar strike a "lucky hit" for the insurgents.