Ethiopian troops have arrived in the central Somali town of Galkayo, witnesses said Tuesday. Ethiopian officials denied their troops were there.

The troops entered Galkayo driving seven pick-ups trucks mounted with machine guns and six trucks loaded with boxes, said Ahmed Ali, a resident of the town. It is the first time Ethiopian troops are reported to have entered central Somalia.

"Their arrival was not a secret," said local resident and businessman Ali Mohamed. "They were seen inside the town in 13 vehicles. Some of them were even waving at us."

The troops were seen arriving around 4 p.m. local time, Mohamed told The Associated Press by telephone.

The Islamic courts group, which now controls the capital Mogadishu and much of southern Somalia, has began expanding its influence into central Somalia, taking over a handful of minor towns. Ethiopia is a close ally of the weak U.N.-backed transitional government that the Islamic militants oppose.

CountryWatch: Somalia

Ethiopian officials denied their troops were in the country.

"No Ethiopian troops have crossed the border into Somalia," said foreign affairs spokesman Solomon Abebe. The Islamic courts "wants to use Ethiopia as a disguise or pretext to further advance their own motives."

On Sunday, government-allied militia officials told The Associated Press that Ethiopian troops had arrived in the southern Somali town of Baidoa, where the weak U.N.-backed transitional government is based.

Residents of Galkayo earlier this month held demonstrations saying the Islamic courts group was unwelcome in their town.

Government-allied militias based in the central Somalia region have said they are willing to fight the Islamic militants.

Somalia does not have a national army or police, nor has it had an effective central government since warlords overthrew longtime dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991, and then turned on each other plunging the country into a spiral of violence and chaos.