Somalia's interim prime minister has categorically denied reports that Ethiopian troops have entered Somalia, or the town of Baidoa, where the country's fledgling government is based. VOA Correspondent Alisha Ryu is in Baidoa and reports that this is the second time in the past two weeks tensions in the Horn of Africa have escalated over unconfirmed reports that Ethiopian troops have crossed over into Somalia.
Residents here received a flood of phone calls Sunday morning from anxious friends and family in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, asking if Ethiopian troops had really arrived in Baidoa.
Residents in both cities say they have heard media reports that at least six large Ethiopian military trucks, carrying troops, entered Baidoa late Saturday night.
Somalia's interim prime minister, Ali Mohammed Gedi, told VOA, the reports are not true.
"There are no foreign troops in Somalia, and in Baidoa, as well," said Ali Mohammed Gedi. "There are no Ethiopian troops in Somalia and Baidoa. These rumors are originating from opportunists, who are trying to create a clash between Somalia and our neighbors."
Two weeks ago, the Islamist leadership that has taken control of the Somali capital, Mogadishu, accused Ethiopia of sending several hundred troops into Somalia in order to prop up the internationally recognized, but weak interim government. Militias loyal to the Islamist leaders in Mogadishu now control a large area of southern Somalia.
Ethiopia has denied it has crossed the border into Somalia, saying it has deployed troops, but only along the border to defend against what Ethiopia calls provocative actions by the Islamists in Mogadishu.
After capturing the capital early last month, hard-liners within the Islamic courts recently consolidated power over the moderates, and named Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys to head their legislative arm.
Under Aweys, whom the United States has linked to al-Qaida, the courts reorganized into a governing structure and renamed itself as the Supreme Islamic Council of Somalia. Aweys then stated that his group would extend its control over the entire country, including the breakaway regions of Somaliland and Puntland, and would govern through strict Islamic laws.
The largely Christian Ethiopia firmly opposes the creation of a hard-line Islamist state in Somalia, and has been pressing for the deployment of its troops in Somalia as part of an African Union-backed peacekeeping force. It has also reserved the right to act in self-defense.
Ethiopia and Somalia share a bitter history, and many Somalis, especially in Mogadishu, say they will not tolerate Ethiopian troops in their country.
But Somali supporters of the interim government here in Baidoa say they believe Ethiopia may be the only regional force strong enough to curb the Islamists' plans for territorial expansion, and they would welcome an Ethiopian intervention.
African Union leaders meeting in The Gambia want a United Nations arms embargo on Somalia to be lifted, so that East African troops from Uganda and Sudan can be deployed here as soon as possible to stabilize the country.
But African Union and western diplomats say the only country that has shown any willingness to go into Somalia is Ethiopia.