Hundreds of Ethiopian troops poured into a western Somalia border town yesterday, opening a new front against the militant group al-Shabaab, which now faces hostile militaries on three sides.
Resident Mohammed Abdi said hundreds of residents fled Beledweyne yesterday after hundreds of Ethiopian and Somalian troops moved in. Captain Hashi Nor of the Somalian military confirmed that Somalian and Ethiopian troops had moved in.
“I saw Ethiopian troops standing at the doors of neighboring homes. Somalian soldiers are also searching the homes,” Abdi said. “Al-Shabaab retreated back to Bulo Burte and also many of the residents fled, and those who remained are in their homes.’’
The military movement appears to be a third front against al-Shabaab, Somalia’s strongest militant group.
Kenyan troops moved into Somalia in mid-October in a push against the militants in the country’s south. African Union troops from Uganda, Burundi and most recently from Djibouti have mostly pushed al-Shabaab fighters out of the capital, Mogadishu.
“We are in full control of Beledweyne now and our troops will move forward in the coming hours,” Nor, the Somalian military officer, said by phone from Beledweyne.
Abdi said the sound of gunfire could be heard in Beledweyne, but that he did not believe actual battle was taking place.
However, al-Shabaab on its official Twitter feed said that a battle that began at 6am was still “raging” in the city as of midday.
Al-Shabaab said that a “majority” of Beledweyne residents joined al-Shabaab “to thwart the offensive.”
It said dozens of Ethiopian troops had been killed, but that was impossible to verify and was likely an exaggerated claim.
US-backed Ethiopian troops moved into Somalia in 2006 at the invitation of the weak, UN-backed Somalian government.
However, the incursion was seen by many Somalians as an unpopular invasion and actually helped give birth to the al-Shabaab movement. Ethiopians pulled out in early 2009, and there are fears that a new push by Somalia could be a propaganda coup for al-Shabaab.
The central Somalia town of Beledweyne lies about 30km from the border with Ethiopia.