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Official Says Ethiopian Troops Back in Somalia

A local official in Somalia says Ethiopian troops are now staying at a military base near a town in the central part of the country. The reported sighting of Ethiopian troops in central Somalia is just one of several from around the country.

In an interview with local reporters, the district commissioner of Balanbale town in the central Galgadud region says several truck loads of Ethiopian troops are staying at the military base set up on the outskirts of the town.

District Commissioner Hareere Hassan Barre did not say how many Ethiopian troops were in Balanbale, located about 28 kilometers from the Ethiopian border, but his comments appear to back up other eyewitness reports.

Barre said the soldiers began arriving there on Friday and have set up a military camp in the western part of town.

The Somali official says an Ethiopian commander explained that the troops have been sent to Balanbale for security reasons, not to re-occupy the town. Barre says their presence appears to be related to heightened al-Shabab activities in central Somalia in recent weeks.

Since early May, deadly fighting has erupted in several towns in the Galgadud region between pro-government militias and an alliance of al-Shabab and Hisbul Islam militants. The militants are fighting to retain, and to expand, the territory they control in central and southern Somalia and to overthrow the weak government of President Sharif Sheik Ahmed.

Under a U.N.-sponsored agreement with the moderate Islamist leader, Ethiopia ended its unpopular two-year occupation of Somalia five months ago. But the militants have portrayed President Sharif as a western puppet and have intensified the insurgency.

Ethiopia remains deeply wary of al-Shabab, which has links to al-Qaida network, and Hisbul Islam, which is led by hard-line nationalists determined to unite ethnically Somali parts of Ethiopia with Somalia. Hundreds of foreigners are also believed to be Somalia, fighting alongside the Somali militants.

The government in Addis Ababa had warned that Ethiopian troops would be sent back if the Somali government was unable to keep the militants in check. Earlier this month, government spokesman Bereket Simon acknowledged that Ethiopian troops have conducted what he called "small reconnaissance missions" across the border.

But Bereket has flatly rejected Somali reports that Ethiopian troops have set up camp in Balanbale.

Chad's ambassador to the African Union, Sharif Mohamed Zene, who holds the rotating chairmanship of the A.U. Peace and Security Council, says he believes the allegation is being made by rebel groups trying to find an excuse to attack the government and African Union peacekeeping troops in the capital Mogadishu.

"The Ethiopian troops are not there. They withdrew completely from Somalia. It is a false allegation," Zene said.

In recent months, eyewitnesses in the central Hiran region of Somalia have reported seeing large numbers of Ethiopian troops in the border town of Kala Bayr. Last week, residents in Somalia's Bakool region said that Ethiopian troops had moved into a village called Washaga, near the Ethiopian border.

None of the reports have been independently verified. But both regions have significant al-Shabab and Hisbul Islam presence.