The leader of Somalia’s increasingly powerful Islamic militia accused Ethiopian troops Saturday of crossing into the country — a charge Ethiopia denied.
Ethiopia said its forces only massed near the border to monitor the situation and had not entered neighboring Somalia.
“Ethiopia has a right to monitor its border,” Bereket Simon, an adviser to Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, told The Associated Press in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
His comments came after Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, chairman of the Islamic Courts Union, said 300 Ethiopian troops entered Somalia through the border town of Dolow in the southwestern region of Gedo on Saturday morning.
“We want the whole world to know what’s going on,” Ahmed told journalists. “Ethiopia has crossed our borders and are heading for us. They are supporting the transitional federal government.”
Ahmed’s interpreter initially said the Islamic leader accused the United States of encouraging an Ethiopian intervention. But Ahmed later said that was a mistranslation and he had not made that accusation.
In recent days, Ethiopian troops have been crossing into Somali border towns and leaving, Ahmed said.
“They have deployed a lot of soldiers around the border towns, which is why we have been saying that Ethiopia is going to send in troops to Somalia,” the cleric said.
The Islamic Courts Union is the group behind the militiamen that have swept across southern Somalia, installing clan-based, religiously oriented municipal administrations. It captured Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, on June 6 after months of fighting with an alliance of warlords backed by the United States.
330 deaths, mostly civilians
More than 330 people died in the fighting, most of them civilians. The Islamic group now controls most of southern Somalia.
The group, accused by the United States of harboring al-Qaida fugitives, portrays itself as free of links to Somalia’s past turmoil and capable of bringing order and unity. But the future of a country accustomed to moderate Islam would be uncertain under hard-line Islamic rulers.
Ahmed denied Saturday that any foreigners were involved in its Islamic courts or that anyone in the courts had ties to al-Qaida.
Somalia has been without an effective central government since the fall of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991.
Ethiopia has intervened in Somalia in the past to prevent Islamic extremists from taking power.
Ethiopians also were key power brokers in forming President Abdullahi Yusuf’s transitional government in 2004. Yusuf, himself a former warlord, had asked for Ethiopian troops to back his government.
The Islamic group’s only competition for control of southern Somalia is Yusuf’s transitional government. That government is supported by Somalia’s neighbors, the United Nations, the United States and the European Union, so opposing it could mean regional and international isolation and possibly crippling sanctions for any administration the Islamic forces try to build.
Ready for negotiations
Yusuf said Saturday he was willing to hold talks with the Islamic Courts Union if they agree to mediation by Yemen.
He said they must stop their advance, agree not to enter any more towns and recognize the legitimacy of the government and the constitution.
Ahmed said his Islamic group was ready to meet with what he described as the “illegitimate government,” but he would not agree to any conditions.
Meanwhile, Islamic Courts Union spokesman Abdi Rahman Osman said the last two main warlords who lost the Somali capital to the militia — Muse Sudi Yalahow and Bashir Rage — fled the country on a boat and were picked up by a U.S. warship early Saturday.
U.S. officials have acknowledged backing the warlords against the Islamic group. But the U.S. Naval 5th Fleet, which patrols international waters off Somalia and is based in Bahrain, said it had no reports that any of its ships had picked up the warlords.