Islamic Leader: 300 Ethiopian Troops Entering Somalia; Ethiopians Deny It

The leader of Somalia's Islamic Courts Union, which captured the Somali capital days ago, said 300 Ethiopian troops crossed into the country Saturday.

An Ethiopian official, however, said Ethiopian troops were on the border but had not crossed into Somalia. Bereket Simon, an adviser to Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, told The Associated Press, "Ethiopia has a right to monitor its border." He gave no further details.

Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, chairman of the Islamic Courts Union, said the Ethiopian troops entered Somalia through the border town of Dolow in the southwestern region of Gedo at 8 a.m.

"We want the whole world to know what's going on," Ahmed told journalists. "Ethiopia has crossed our borders and are heading for us. They are supporting the transitional federal government."

Ahmed's translator mistranslated one of the leader's comments, saying incorrectly that he had accused the United States of encouraging an Ethiopian intervention. Ahmed did not make such an accusation.

In recent days, Ethiopian troops have been crossing into Somali border towns and leaving, Ahmed said.

"They have deployed a lot of soldiers around the border towns, which is why we have been saying that Ethiopia is going to send in troops to Somalia," the cleric said.

The Islamic Courts Union is the group behind the militiamen that have swept across southern Somalia installing clan-based, religiously oriented municipal administrations.

It captured Somalia's capital, Mogadishu, on June 6 after months of on-and-off fighting with an alliance of warlords backed by the U.S. More than 330 people died in the fighting, most of them civilians. The group now controls most of southern Somalia.

The Islamic group, accused by the United States of harboring Al Qaeda, portrays itself as free of links to Somalia's past turmoil and capable of bringing order and unity. But the future of a country accustomed to moderate Islam would be uncertain under hard-line Islamic rulers.

Ahmed denied Saturday that any foreigners were involved in the Islamic courts or that any one in the courts had ties to Al Qaeda.

Ethiopia has intervened in Somalia in the past to prevent Islamic extremists from taking power.

Ethiopians were also key power brokers in forming President Abdullahi Yusuf's transitional government in 2004. Yusuf was their preferred candidate for president. Yusuf, himself a former warlord, had asked for Ethiopian troops to back up his government in 2004.

In a statement Saturday, Yusuf said that he was willing to hold talks with the Islamic Courts Union if they agree to mediation by Yemen.

He said that they must stop their advance and agree not to enter any more towns than they have already and they must recognize the legitimacy of the government and the constitution.

Ahmed, chairman of the Islamic Courts Union, said that his group was ready to hold talks with what he described as the "illegitimate government" but he would not agree to any conditions.

An Islamic Courts Union spokesman, meanwhile, said the last two main warlords who lost the Somali capital to the militia fled the country on board a U.S. warship on Saturday.

But the U.S. Naval 5th Fleet, which patrols international waters off Somalia and is based in Bahrain, said it had no reports that any of its ships had picked them up.

Abdi Rahman Osman, spokesman for the Islamic Courts Union, said Muse Sudi Yalahow and Bashir Rage left Mogadishu late Friday on a boat and were picked up by a U.S. warship off Somalia's coast early Saturday

U.S. officials have acknowledged backing the warlords against the Islamic group.

The departure of Yalahow and Rage from Mogadishu would mean the 11-member warlord-led Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counterterrorism has collapsed.

Most of them have publicly declared their resignations from the group and retreated to their clans or expressed support for the Islamic Courts Union.

Somalia has been without an effective central government since the fall of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991.

The Islamic group's only competition for control of southern Somalia is Yusuf's transitional government.

Yusuf's government is supported by Somalia's neighbors, the United Nations, the United States and the European Union, so opposing it could mean regional and international isolation and possibly crippling sanctions for any administration the Islamic forces try to build.