Ethiopian troops poured into a strategic town in central Somalia on Saturday, seizing it from the Shabab militant group and opening a new axis of conflict in this country.
The loss of the town, Beledweyne, a trading hub near the Ethiopian border, leaves the Shabab rebels, who once controlled much of the country, spread thin and on the defensive.
African Union forces have been pounding their positions in Mogadishu, the capital, driving Shabab fighters from most of the city. Kenyan troops are battling the Shabab in the swampy jungles along the Kenya-Somalia border.
Dozens of people appeared to have been killed in the fighting in Beledweyne, with conflicting casualty reports from Somali government officials and from the Shabab, who sent out a barrage of messages on Twitter shortly after the battles began.
At first, the Shabab boasted in a Twitter message that the “majority of local residents have joined the mujahedeen to thwart the offensive” in Beledweyne.
Then the Shabab, who have been avidly using Twitter lately, said that the “Ethiopians rushed headlong towards city with a barrage of artillery but were halted in their tracks.”
But by 3 p.m., the Shabab announced “a planned withdrawal” from Beledweyne, which drew a few derisive comments on Twitter.
The Ethiopian forces, who crossed into Somalia with heavy armor last month, were joined by militias and troops allied to Somalia’s weak Transitional Federal Government, the internationally recognized authority that controls little territory of its own.
As the troops entered the town on Saturday morning, Somali militiamen went house to house, ordering Beledweyne’s residents to stay indoors and not look outside. Some residents said they believed this was a tactic to conceal the large numbers of Ethiopian soldiers who in the past have done much more of the fighting against the Shabab insurgents than their Somali partners.
Nevertheless, the transitional government was quick to take the credit.
“Today, the government and the people of Somalia have stood up against the evils of Al Qaeda and Al Shabab terrorists, who have for so long terrorized and killed countless Somalis and our neighbors,” Prime Minister Abdiweli Mohamed Ali said in a statement.
The statement added that “the Somali National Army recaptured some Al Shabab-occupied territories” and that this was a “historic operation.”
Many analysts had predicted that it was only a matter of time before the Ethiopians jumped into the fight. Ethiopia has sent troops into Somalia several times since Somalia’s government collapsed in 1991. Some analysts now say that the Ethiopians will soon try to take over Baidoa, a large central Somali town and one of the Shabab’s last strongholds.
The New York Times