MOGADISHU Scores of Ethiopian military vehicles pushed at least 80 km into neighboring Somalia on Saturday, residents said, five weeks after Kenya entered Somalia to fight Islamist militants it blames for a wave of kidnappings on its soil.
"The Ethiopian troops, which are in convoys of armored vehicles, come to us today, crossing from Balanbale district on the border," Gabobe Adan, an elder in the town of Guriel told Reuters.
"They were in about 28 trucks and armed battle wagons - the armed vehicles are very big."
Other residents told Reuters that the Ethiopians had set up a base in Guriel and moved troops to other towns nearby.
A spokesman for the Ethiopian government, Shimeles Kemal, would neither confirm nor deny the reports. Another Ethiopian official told Reuters that an Ethiopian move to support the Kenyan assault on the al Shabaab group was likely.
Senior Kenyan government ministers have shuttled around the east Africa region this week and travelled to the Gulf to drum up political and financial support for a coordinated campaign to rout the al Qaeda-linked rebels.
Although Ethiopian troops regularly cross the border with Somalia, and it has admitted opening "humanitarian corridors" into the country that it says are for food relief, residents said the numbers and locations of the troops was unusual.
Ethiopia entered Somalia in 2006, with tacit U.S. backing, to oust another Islamist movement that had taken control of the capital Mogadishu and large swathes of the country.
Its army set up a base in Guriel during that operation.
The presence of the Ethiopian troops was hugely unpopular with Somalis, and with some analysts saying it was fanning support for new militant groups, they withdrew in early 2009.
(Writing by Barry Malone; Additional reporting by Aaron Maasho in Addis Ababa and Sahra Abdi in Nairobi)