ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) - Ethiopia Wednesday dismissed a threat of invasion from Somalia’s hardline Islamist insurgents saying the rebels posed no clear and present danger.
Ethiopian troops invaded Somalia in 2006 to oust an Islamist movement from the capital Mogadishu. That sparked an insurgency that is still raging, despite the troops’ withdrawal in January.
Al Qaeda-linked fighters in Somalia’s al Shabaab rebel group are battling to oust President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, himself a former Islamist insurgent who joined a peace process last year.
Tuesday, al Shabaab threatened to attack Ethiopia, urging its fighters to wage jihad against its neighbor.
“We have heard the declaration of war from al Shabaab,” said Ethiopian government head of information Bereket Simon. “We cannot say this is a clear and present danger to Ethiopia.”
Al Shabaab and allied fighters control much of southern and central Somalia and have boxed the government and 4,300 African Union peackeepers into a few blocks of Mogadishu.
Street fighting and mortar shelling killed at least 15 people and wounded 42 in the capital late Wednesday, residents and ambulance workers said.
Resident Abdullahi Ahmed said he had seen 6 dead fighters in the street and that he had been hit in the hand by shrapnel.
Ambulance service official Ali Muse said they had taken 9 bodies and 42 wounded people to hospitals.
Western nations and Somalia’s neighbors worry that if the rebels succeed in toppling Ahmed, the Horn of Africa nation will become a safe haven for al Qaeda training camps and hardline Islamists will destabilize the region.
The government’s military spokesman, Farhan Arsanyo, told Reuters late Wednesday they had captured two opposition fighters who admitted they were Pakistani.
“We will be displaying them to the media tomorrow,” he said.
The insurgency has sucked in foreign jihadists, enabled piracy to flourish in the busy shipping lanes off Somalia and put neighboring countries on high alert.
Ethiopia has kept a strong military force along its common border since withdrawing. While it has repeatedly denied sending combat troops back into Somalia, it has acknowledged making “reconnaissance” missions into its neighbor.
Somali residents, rebels and humanitarian workers have reported seeing Ethiopian soldiers in different parts of the country in recent weeks. Addis Ababa says the reports are being peddled by hardliners to mobilize support for the insurgency.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has not ruled out sending back troops if his country is threatened but says he is waiting to see how the international community responds to the deteriorating security situation in the country.
Kenya, east Africa’s biggest economy, has beefed up its military presence along its porous border with southern Somalia, where the rebels have their main strongholds.
Al Shabaab has threatened to strike in the capital Nairobi, which is home to a large Somali community, if Kenya intervenes and the country’s security forces are on alert.
The district police commander in Isiolo district, Marius Tim, said Wednesday that anti-terrorism police had raided a village in the center of Kenya and arrested two people accused of helping a top al Shabaab official get Kenyan citizenship.
Additional reporting by Abdi Guled in Mogadishu and Noor Ali Isiolo; Writing by David Clarke; Editing by Louise Ireland