Ethiopian troops enter key Somali town, locals say

Source: Reuters

* Hundreds of soldiers occupy Baladwayne * Somali government declines to comment * Government forces kill two suspected rebels (Updates with deaths, paragraphs 7-8) By Mohamed Ahmed MOGADISHU, Aug 29 (Reuters) – Ethiopian troops in heavily armoured vehicles crossed into central Somalia on Saturday, witnesses said, taking control of Baladwayne town and advancing on Islamist insurgent positions in the area. The strategic town is a stronghold of the militant group al Shabaab, which the United States — Ethiopia’s ally in the Horn of Africa — accuses of being al Qaeda’s proxy in the country. Battles have been raging across central and southern Somalia in recent weeks as pro-government militias try to seize territory back from al Shabaab and another rebel group, Hizbul Islam. Residents said gunfire broke out in Baladwayne on Saturday as Ethiopian troops arrived alongside Somali government forces. “At about dawn, hundreds of Ethiopian troops entered the town from different directions and we heard sporadic gunshots,” resident Hassan Farah told Reuters by telephone. “After sunrise we saw soldiers patrolling the main streets.” Another local, Farah Ali, said Somali government forces had killed two suspected Islamist rebels during a sweep of the town. “Government forces were on an operation in the west of Baladwayne, which was an al Shabaab stronghold. Many shops and hotels were looted. Several men were also arrested,” Ali said. Locals said al Shabaab’s fighters had mostly withdrawn in the face of the Ethiopian advance. “Al Shabaab militiamen pulled out of our village before dawn. We were woken by the sound of their battle wagons,” another resident, Halima Hassan, told Reuters. “Now a large number of government soldiers and Ethiopian forces are everywhere in the west of Baladwayne. They seem to be establishing a new base.” Officials in Addis Ababa routinely deny that Ethiopian soldiers are on Somali soil, although they say they are providing security advice and training for Somalia’s forces. Ethiopia invaded its Horn of Africa neighbour with tacit U.S. support at the end of 2006 to oust an Islamist movement that was running the capital Mogadishu and much of the south. The Ethiopian military officially withdrew in January, and Somali government leaders declined to comment on reports of their return. Local residents in Baladwayne said Ethiopian forces had been camped a few kilometres (miles) away for months. The international community wants to bolster the U.N.-backed government of President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, which is fighting insurgents controlling most central and southern regions. Violence has killed more than 18,000 Somalis since the start of 2007 and driven another 1.4 million from their homes. That has triggered one of the world’s worst humanitarian emergencies. The number of people needing help has leapt 17.5 percent in a year to 3.76 million, or half the population. [ID:nLP151380] (Additional reporting by Ibrahim Mohamed; Writing by Jeremy Clarke; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

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