Ethiopia denies reports troops in Somalia

By Abdi Sheikh and Abdi Guled

MOGADISHU (Reuters) - Ethiopia's government denied on Tuesday reports from Somali residents that it had sent soldiers back into the neighbouring Horn of Africa country, where hardline Islamist rebels are battling the government.

Ethiopia invaded in late 2006 to help Somalia's interim government topple an Islamist movement controlling the capital and much of the south, but withdrew its troops this year.

"This is a totally fabricated story. We have no plans to go into any of Somalia's territory," Wahade Belay, spokesman for Ethiopia's Foreign Ministry, told Reuters in Addis Ababa.

On Monday, Ethiopia said it was watching events closely but felt the situation was contained within Somalia and that there was no immediate danger that would prompt intervention.

Residents near the central town of Baladwayne said Ethiopian troops in military vehicles arrived before dawn on Tuesday.

"Some of their soldiers were on the hills ... We do not know what they want. They have not spoken to anyone," local man Hussein Osman told Reuters by telephone.

"We believe they are concerned about the al Shabaab (rebels) flowing into our region."

Ismail Hassan, another resident, said the Ethiopian soldiers were accompanied by some former Somali government officials.

"They were on the outskirts of Baladwayne," he said.

(Additional reporting by Barry Malone in Addis Ababa; Writing by Daniel Wallis; Editing by Louise Ireland)

Article Published: 19/05/2009