The United States is expressing concern about the situation in Somalia, and the possible involvement of troops from neighboring Ethiopia.  Islamic fighters in Somalia are reported to be advancing on Baidoa, where the country's transitional government is located. 

Witnesses in Somalia say Ethiopian troops have entered the transitional government's base in the town of Baidoa, to protect it from a feared advance by Islamic militants.  Ethiopia denies those reports, but has said it is ready to go into Somalia to defend the transitional government.

In Washington Thursday, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said he could not confirm whether Ethiopian troops have entered Somalia.

"We have seen the reports and we're watching the situation very closely," he said.  "We would urge the government of Ethiopia to exercise restraint.  Now, the reason for this increased level of tension in the area has been the movement of some forces from the Islamic Courts [Council], in and around Baidoa."

When asked if he thought the addition of Ethiopian troops could be helpful to the situation, the spokesman said Washington would like Somalia's transitional government and the Islamic Courts Council to resolve their differences without violence.

"We would obviously like to see some sort of peaceful dialogue between the Somali government, the federal institutions, and the Islamic Courts [Council]," he added.  "We'll see if that is going to be possible."

Fighters from the Islamic Courts Council have seized control of much of southern Somalia in recent weeks, after defeating secular warlords in a battle for the capital, Mogadishu.  The United Nations backs Somalia's transitional government, which has little power outside of Baidoa.

The State Department spokesman said the so-called International Contact Group on Somalia will meet again soon to discuss the situation.

"The Contact Group is going to get together to talk about this, and to see what we can do to use the members of the contact group and their contacts with the various parties in Somalia to see if we can avoid a new spike in violence," he explained.

The group includes representatives from the Arab League, the European Union, the African Union and the United States.

The State Department spokesman acknowledged that Somalia's transitional institutions are, in his words, "weak" and "not very robust."  He added that the Contact Group is also looking at ways to strengthen those institutions so that they can exercise more and more responsible control over Somalia.