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Ethiopia troops crossing into Somalia-top Islamist

Written by: Staff

JOWHAR, Somalia, June 17 (Reuters) About 300 Ethiopian troops crossed into Somalia today, a top Islamist said, as Islamic fighters who wrested control of Mogadishu moved inland toward the seat of Somalia's interim government.

Somalia's interim President Abdullahi Yusuf, a former warlord, is closely allied with Addis Ababa, which was instrumental in his election after peace talks in Kenya in 2004.

''There are Ethiopian troops just past the border and coming in,'' Islamic Courts Union Chairman Sharif Sheikh Ahmed told reporters, citing the incursion in Dollow in southwest Somalia today morning.

The Ethiopian government had no immediate comment.

Dollow is near the intersection of the Kenyan, Ethiopian and Somali borders and is on the road to Baidoa, where Somalia's weak interim government is based and has been increasingly surrounded by the Islamist militias.

Ethiopia, Washington's top counterterrorism ally in the Horn of Africa, had backed warlords the Islamists have routed from their strongholds in Mogadishu in a swift march from the coastal capital to Baladwayne near the Ethiopian border.

Largely secular Ethiopia has long been wary of the influence of Islam in the region, and has not hesitated to send its military into Somalia. It has fought Islamic forces inside Somalia before, and Yusuf was involved in the fighting.

The warlords have been supported and armed by Ethiopia as a proxy force for years, and are widely believed to have been financed with US money in their last stand against the Islamists, which killed 350 people in battles since February.

The warlords had accused the Islamists of harbouring al Qaeda members and planning to create an Islamic state. Ahmed again denied any terrorist links.

A United Nations report on violations of an arms embargo slapped on Somalia in 1992 said Ethiopia this year gave weapons to warlord Mohamed Dheere, run out of his stronghold in Jowhar, 90 km north of Mogadishu, by the Islamists last week.

Dheere is believed to have taken refuge in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital.

Ahmed's group has said it wants peaceful dialogue with Yusuf's government and has no plans to form its own. It has, however, installed Islamic sharia courts wherever it has taken control and some fear it plans to expand its grip further.

Ahmed said the courts would not accept Yemen's offer to host peace talks if the government put any conditions on them.


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