Somalia's government has played down reports that Ethiopian troops have re-entered the country in recent days. Islamist insurgents have clashed with pro-government militias near the Ethiopian border in central Somalia, and continue an assault on the fragile government in Mogadishu.
A number of residents of the Hiran region of central Somalia say Ethiopian troops have crossed into the country in recent days. But Somalia's information minister, Farhan Ali Mohamud played down the reports.
He said the government has heard the media reports of Ethiopian troops entering the country, but that he does not think they are accurate. It is understandable, he said, that Ethiopia would deploy troops along the border to defend itself, considering the fighting taking place on the Somali side. But he said he does not believe Ethiopian troops have entered Somali territory.
Ethiopian soldiers entered Somalia in 2006 during a U.S.-backed operation to dislodge the Islamic Courts Union from Mogadishu. The short-lived Islamist government included both current President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, who now has the backing of the international community, and Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, who leads one of the Islamist factions leading the current assault on the government.
Ethiopian forces withdrew from Somalia in January after a peace deal between the government and President Sharif's faction of the opposition, but said it would return if its interests were threatened. Ethiopia maintains a strong troop presence along the border. There have been intermittent reports of Ethiopian troops crossing over in recent months. Ethiopia has also denied that its soldiers are in the country.
Since May 8, Islamist insurgents form the al-Shabab militia, and Hizbul Islam, an allied coalition of militias, have been battling government forces, pro-government militias and African Union peacekeepers in Mogadishu. Insurgents attacked a base for AU peacekeepers from Burundi early Wednesday. At least three civilians were killed, but no peacekeepers.
The United Nations refugee agency says that 45,000 people have been displaced from their homes in the capital since the latest wave of fighting began. Most, it says, are heading to the Afgooye road southeast of the city, where some 400,000 internally displaced people are already staying. Others have moved to safer districts of Mogadishu.
Al-Shabab this week also captured Jowhar, north of Mogadishu, the home town of President Sharif. Local media reported that al-Shabab fighters looted U.N. offices in the town and that al-Shabab has established an Islamic administration in the town. Al-Shabab has already established a strict version of Islamic law in other areas in controls in southern Somalia, including the port city of Kismayo.
Ministers from the IGAD regional group of countries held an emergency meeting in Addis Ababa on Wednesday. The head of the AU Peace and Security Council, Jean Ping, appealed to countries to block access to ports controlled by the insurgents. He also repeated the AU's request for UN peacekeepers to replace the undermanned AU mission. The UN Security Council has said it is in favor of eventually transitioning to a UN peacekeeping mission, but for the time being the security situation remains too precarious.
Also on Wednesday, Italian foreign minister Franco Frattini said that a conference would be held in Rome next month to deal with issues of security and piracy in Somalia. He said the meeting would include member of the government and opposition, but offered few details. He said the problem of piracy can only be tackled by helping Somalia's fragile government restore order to the country.
Somalia has been without a properly functioning central government since 1991, when dictator Mohamed Siad Barre was ousted from power.