MOGADISHU, Somalia - Witnesses said Tuesday that Ethiopian troops had crossed the border into war-ravaged Somalia and appeared to be stationing themselves in a town at a strategic crossroads. Ethiopia denied the reports.
Any substantial movement of Ethiopian troops into Somali territory could hand Somali Islamist insurgents a propaganda coup.
They used nationalist and religious rhetoric to help recruit fighters against the previous Somali administration, portraying the Islamist cause as a defence of Somalia against Ethiopian invaders, who are largely Christian.
A witness said he saw 12 military vehicles, but the number of troops was not clear, nor was it clear if they were a vanguard of a larger force or an attempt to protect the porous border from the Islamic insurgents.
"Our troops have not returned to Somalia," Ethiopian Foreign Ministry spokesman Wahde Belay said. "Our troops are on our side of the border."
There have been sporadic reports of Ethiopian troops crossing into Somalia since early this year, when Ethiopia pulled out the forces it had sent there in 2006 to restore the United Nations-backed government to power in the capital, Mogadishu. Islamist fighters, who had seized the capital along with much of southern Somalia, were outgunned by Ethiopian firepower but began an Iraq-style insurgency.
Since then, Somalia has changed administrations, but the insurgents have continued to attack government forces and fighting intensified this month.
Witnesses said they saw Ethiopian troops in the Somali town of Kalabeyr, some 20 kilometres from the Ethiopian border and 20 kilometres north of Belet Weyne, the provincial capital of Somalia's Hiran region. Kalabeyr lies at the junction of a road that links southern, central and northern Somalia to the Ethiopian border.
Local bus driver Farah Ahmed Adan said he saw 12 military vehicles.
"Some of them were digging trenches while others were guarding the whole area," he said. "They stopped me and checked my car and then ordered me to move."
Resident Tabane Abdi Ali said the troops spoke Ethiopia's Amharic language and their vehicles carried Ethiopian number plates. Another resident, Fadum Duale, said the troops crossed the border late Monday night and appeared to be taking up defensive positions.
The African Union and Somali Information Minister Farhan Ali Mahmud would not comment on the reports of Ethiopian troop arrivals and UN officials did not return calls seeking comment. The government directly controls only a few blocks of the capital, Mogadishu. Allied militias control parts of central Somalia.