MOGADISHU, Somalia – A top official in Somalia's Islamic militia said Monday he will produce "corpses or POWs" to prove that neighboring Ethiopia has sent soldiers across the border to protect Somalia's weak government.
Ethiopian and Somali government officials deny that Ethiopian troops have entered Somalia, despite widespread witness accounts that the soldiers arrived four days ago to help ward off Islamic militants who have been accused of links to Al Qaeda.
"The Ethiopians have denied the occupation in our land, but we shall show the world corpses or POWs from their ranks," Sheik Muqtar Robow, deputy defense chief for the Islamic group, said during an anti-Ethiopia rally that drew 5,000 people in Mogadishu.
Ethiopia, a largely Christian country, is the longtime enemy of Somalia, which is mostly Muslim. Somali government leaders may be reluctant to acknowledge that the Ethiopians have come to their aid because they don't want to appear beholden to a traditional adversary. Somali President Abdullahi Yusuf is allied with Ethiopia and has asked for its support.
Anti-Ethiopian sentiment ran high during the rally organized by the Supreme Islamic Courts Council militia, which seized control of the capital much of the rest of southern Somalia after months of bloody battles. More than 5,000 enraged Somalis packed a stadium in the capital, Mogadishu, burned an Ethiopian flag and carried signs that said, "We Must Fight Them!"
"I came here to show that the presence of Ethiopian troops in Somalia is illegal," said Amina Hagi, a mother of four in Mogadishu, where anti-Ethiopian sentiment runs high.
Somalia has been without an effective central government since warlords toppled dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991 and then turned on each other, carving much of the country into armed camps ruled by violence and clan law.
A new government, which includes some warlords linked to the violence of the past, was established two years ago with the support of the United Nations. But the body wields no real power, has no military and only operates in Baidoa, 150 miles from Mogadishu.
The Islamic militia stepped in and seized control of most of southern Somalia — prompting grave concerns in the United States, which accuses the group of harboring Al Qaeda leaders responsible for deadly 1998 bombings at the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
Somali witnesses in several towns reported seeing them cross from Ethiopia four days ago and enter Baidoa, the only town held by the government, after the Islamic militia moved within striking distance of the town. Ethiopian troops also were spotted in nearby Wajid.
Solomon Abebe, spokesman for the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, refused to address the witness accounts of Ethiopian troops, but lashed out at the Islamic militia's leader, calling Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys "scum" and a terrorist.
Salad Ali Jeeley, the government's deputy information minister, said Monday's rally was "aimed at igniting the conflict in Somalia."
Earlier Monday, a Somali warlord and 150 of his militiamen offered their support to the government. Mohamed Qanyare Afrah arrived in Baidoa at 4:30 a.m. (0130 GMT), said Mohamed Dooli, one of Qanyare's militia commanders.
Qanyare was among a group of secular warlords and their allies who fought the Islamic militia for control of Mogadishu between February and June.
The secular warlords were backed by the United States in an attempt to root out terrorists, but they were defeated after fierce battles that killed 400 civilians, according to a report Sunday from a Somali human rights group.
Farah Yaire, a resident of Wajid, where 200 Ethiopian soldiers moved in Saturday, said that an Ethiopian military helicopter has been landing from neighboring Ethiopia every day and taking off. Yaire, who lives near the airport, did not know what the helicopter was carrying because the airport is closed to civilians.