Al Shabaab militants welcomed a reported incursion by hundreds of troops from neighbouring Ethiopia as a sign that Kenya’s offensive against the Islamist rebels was failing.
Underlining that it was pursuing the offensive, the Kenyan military said warplanes backed by salvoes from warships off Somalia’s coast destroyed an al Shabaab training camp in Hola Wajerer/Lacta area of the Babade district.
But the Kenyan assault on al Shabaab appears to have slowed with its military blaming heavy rains and mud. Al Shabaab claim successful guerrilla-style attacks have halted the advance, Reuters reports.
Scores of Ethiopian military vehicles, ferrying troops and weapons, pushed at least 80 km (50 miles) into Somalia on Saturday, according to local residents and elders, crossing into the centre of the near lawless country from Ethiopia and travelling through Kenya to reach its south.
Ethiopia on Sunday continued to publicly deny that any of its forces had entered its Horn of Africa neighbour.
Residents and elders witnessed the convoys and identified them to Reuters as Ethiopian. Al Shabaab also reported the presence of Ethiopian forces in several towns.
An Ethiopian foreign ministry spokesman said no decision had yet been made on whether to support the Kenyan army, who entered Somalia five weeks ago vowing to wipe out al Shabaab, who it blames for kidnapping and attacking tourists on its soil.
“We are glad to say Ethiopian troops are in the Guriel area – they have come because AMISOM and Kenya have failed in the fight against al Shabaab,” Sheikh Abdiasis Abu Musab, an al Shabaab spokesman, told Reuters.
AMISOM is an African Union force of Ugandan and Burundian troops that has been largely responsible for keeping al Shabaab from ousting Somalia’s internationally-backed but weak government.
It was unclear what the intentions of the Ethiopians were. Some local elders said they would fight al Shabaab and others that they will arm and train militias loyal to the government.
An Ethiopian presence in Somalia is potentially politically sensitive after many bloody episodes — and previous incursions — between the two Horn of Africa nations.
The last time Ethiopia entered Somalia was in December 2006, with tacit U.S. backing and at the invitation of a government that had lost control of the capital Mogadishu and large swathes of the country to another Islamist group.
“SOMALIA NOT A PLACE TO COME AND ENJOY”
The Ethiopians left Somalia in early 2009 after ousting that group but dogged by accusations that their presence — hugely unpopular with Somalis — was inspiring support for militias such as al Shabaab who were not as powerful at that time.
“Al Shabaab and the Ethiopians know each other. We made them pull out with their dead bodies two years ago. They plan to ease the burden on Kenya and AMISOM but we are really determined to fight them,” Abu Musab said.
“Somalia is not a cool place to come and enjoy.”
Sunday’s air strike was the first of any note since the early days of Kenya’s intervention.
Kenya denied claims from al Shabaab that it had sunk a Kenyan navy vessel on Sunday.
Police in Dadaab refugee camp, a target of previous attacks by al Shabaab, said they had found an unexploded improvised explosive device on Sunday that had been hidden at the side of a road regularly used by United Nations aid workers.
Senior Kenyan government ministers have shuttled around east Africa this week and gone to the Gulf to drum up political and financial support for a more coordinated campaign to rout the rebels in a country notoriously tough for foreign armies.
Some analysts say Ethiopia may want to take advantage of al Shabaab’s withdrawal from Mogadishu in August to wipe out a group it sees as a threat to its stability.
The Ethiopian foreign ministry spokesman said a final decision on whether to join the assault against al Shabaab in some form would be taken next Friday.
“East African heads of state will meet on Friday to discuss ways of stabilising Somalia and one plan is to boost the number of AMISOM troops from both neighbouring countries and other African nations,” Dina Mufti told Reuters.
When asked if Addis Ababa would agree to a request for troops he said: “Ethiopia supports Kenya’s efforts and is very much part of the total initiative.”