Somalia’s powerful Islamist movement opened a militia training camp on Wednesday with trainers from Eritrea, Afghanistan and Pakistan, witnesses said.
The presence of foreign instructors points to what many fear is a growing internationalization of a crisis that has split the Horn of Africa nation and threatened the slim authority of its interim government.
The Islamists’ hard-line leader, Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys, attended the opening of the camp for more than 600 Islamist militiamen at Hiilweyne, north of Mogadishu.
“You will study military tactics, because you will defend your country with Islamic morality,” Aweys told the recruits.
Witnesses identified foreign trainers from Eritrea, Pakistan and Afghanistan at the camp.
The United States has raised fears Somalia could become a haven for terrorists. Washington has placed Aweys on a list of terrorism associates. He denies any al-Qaida links.
But security experts say some of his militia leaders trained in Afghanistan and gave safe harbor to al-Qaida operatives involved in a 2002 blast at an Israeli-owned Kenya hotel and a failed attack on an Israeli jet there the same day.
Diplomats fear Somalia could also become a battleground for Ethiopia and Eritrea, and have said more players like Libya, Iran and Egypt have quietly entered the fray.
Eritrea has long denied any involvement in Somalia, but a U.N. Security Council report said it has sent weapons to the Islamists repeatedly in a bid to frustrate rival Ethiopia.
New clashes feared
Meanwhile, the Islamists said Ethiopian soldiers and a warlord ally of the government had taken a town along the Ethiopian border, stoking fears of new clashes.
“Ethiopia and its allied militia have seized Bandiradley,” Islamist spokesman Sheikh Mohamed Agaweyne told Reuters by telephone, referring to Somali warlord Abdi Awale Qaybdiid.
No independent confirmation could immediately be obtained.
Bandiradley is about 18 miles west of Qaybdiid’s hometown Galkaayo, and about 15 miles from the border.
Ethiopia has repeatedly denied sending soldiers into its anarchic neighbor, saying such reports are Islamist propaganda.
But witnesses say thousands have entered the country since July to support the government, and Ethiopia has made no secret of the fact it has massed troops along the Somalia border.
The Islamists, who seized the capital Mogadishu and key southern territories in June after routing U.S.-backed warlords, have refused to negotiate with the government until the Ethiopians leave.
Qaybdiid was one of the last warlords to surrender his militias to the Islamists in a clan-brokered deal in July.
Tensions have been running high in Galkaayo since he returned there two weeks ago with more fighters and dozens of “technicals” -- pickup trucks mounted with heavy weapons.
“We are scared the fighting could hit residential areas where there are many women and children,” one local elder said.
The Islamists oppose the interim government, based in the provincial town of Baidoa because it does not have the military strength to go to Mogadishu.
In the capital, the Islamists also held an official opening ceremony for Mogadishu International Seaport -- closed since 1995 -- to help bolster their claim of returning normalcy to one of the world’s most chaotic and dangerous cities.