By SOLOMON MOORE
NAIROBI, Kenya—Ethiopian government officials vowed Monday to hold a key Somali town that Ethiopian troops wrested from al-Shabaab over the weekend, as the Islamist militant group was said to be massing its troops on the outskirts
The Ethiopian troops’ seizure of Beledweyne on Saturday was another blow to al-Shabaab, which recently ceded ground in Mogadishu to Ugandan and Burundian troops fighting under the authority of the African Union mission in Somalia. Ethiopian troops are working independently of the mission, known as Amisom.
Militants were gathering outside Beledweyne on Monday, the Associated Press reported, and were recruiting from neighboring towns.
Beledweyne, a trading hub on the Ethiopian-Somalian border, has been the site of several battles between al-Shabaab, Somali government-allied militias and Ethiopian troops during recent years.
Hundreds of Ethiopian troops crossed into neighboring Somalia last month at the invitation of Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government—the second invasion of the war-torn country by Ethiopian since 2006. The earlier invasion lasted until 2009, when Ethiopia withdrew amid a lack of regional support for the military action and mounting public criticism in Somalia.
Sebsese Bade, a spokesman for Ethiopia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said he expects this incursion to be more successful, both in fighting al-Shabaab and in helping stabilize the Somali government enough to establish itself more firmly in Mogadishu.
“This time Ethiopia has taken precautions—we were asked to send our troops by the TFG [Somalia’s government] and the African Union—so that there are no misunderstandings on the part of the people of Somalia,” Mr. Bade said. The rout of al-Shabaab in Mogadishu has also convinced Somalis that foreign intervention might have a positive effect, he said.
Mr. Bade insisted, as Kenyan officials have since their troops crossed Somalia’s southern border in October, that the operation will be relatively brief.
“We have a common enemy in al-Shabaab and the Somali government is willing and appreciative of help from its neighboring countries,” said Mohamed Ali Nur, Somalia’s ambassador to Kenya. “They will help the Somali government defeat the enemy and the Somali people welcome this.”
The recent famine in Somalia and al-Shabaab’s refusal, in some instances, to allow food shipments hardened the populace against the militant group, Mr. Nur added.
As Ethiopian troops battle militants in the west, Kenyan troops have been advancing on another of al-Shabaab’s important funding sources in the southeast—the port city of Kismayo. Kenyan officials also have said they hope to create a buffer zone between Somalia and Kenya to stave off kidnappings and terrorist attacks by al-Shabaab. Since Kenya’s invasion, al-Shabaab militants have staged several attacks inside Kenya, including a New Year’s Eve grenade attack that killed five people at a nightclub in Garissa, a northern town.
Kenya is currently awaiting approval from the United Nations Security Council so that its troops can join the African Union command, a move that would allow the U.N. to provide funding to Kenya’s overstretched military.
Lindsey Kiptiness, deputy director of the Horn of Africa division of Kenya’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said such a regionalization of Kenyan troops would allow them to coordinate more closely with African Union forces in Mogadishu.
“We will combine forces to beat al-Shabaab,” he said. The four main foreign forces in Somalia—from Burundi, Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia—now operate mostly independently, though the Burundian and Ugandan troops are under the AU’s aegis.
Ugandan Maj. Gen. Fred Mugisha, commander of Amisom troops in Somalia, said on Monday that his combined Ugandan and Burundian forces have largely secured Mogadishu, despite sporadic attacks by al-Shabaab.
Gen. Mugisha said the shooting deaths last week of two staff members of Doctors Without Borders at the organization’s Mogadishu compound were the act of a disgruntled former employee of the aid group of Somali descent and were unrelated to the current crackdown on al-Shabaab. The former employee has been detained, the general said.
Doctors Without Borders confirmed the deaths of the two doctors, a Belgian and an Indonesian, in a statement last week. It said it will relocate some staff for security reasons, but remains committed to serving Somalia.