Many Somalis say they welcome anyone who can get the militants out, even their historic enemy, the Ethiopians.

Witnesses along the drought-stricken Ethiopia-Somalia border reported on Sunday that hundreds of Ethiopian troops had crossed into Somalia with armoured personnel carriers, heavy artillery and tanks, opening a new front in an intensifying international offensive against the Shabab militant group.

The Islamist insurgents of the Shabab are already battling Kenyan forces in southern Somalia and African Union peacekeepers in Somalia's capital, Mogadishu.

So far the reaction among Somalis, though, has been the polar opposite of what happened a few years ago, when Ethiopian troops invaded Somalia in 2006 and occupied the country for about two years, turning the population against them and fuelling the rise of the Shabab.

This time, many Somalis say they welcome anyone who can get the Shabab out, even their historic enemy, the Ethiopians.

“What we need right now is only peace, and we don't care about the identity of the peacemakers,” said Abdulle Ismail, a resident in the town of Guriel.

The Shabab have been terrorising much of Somalia for years, instituting a harsh form of Islamic law in the territory they control and blocking Western aid groups from working in their areas during a time of famine. But the Shabab are now stretched very thin, with three of their major strongholds in the cross hairs of opposing forces. African Union peacekeepers have been hammering the neighbourhood of Deynile, the last Shabab outpost in Mogadishu, for weeks.

Kenyan forces are slowly but steadily advancing toward the port of Kismaayo, a source of millions of dollars of port fees for the Shabab and possibly their most strategically important town. And now it appears that the Ethiopians are headed to Baidoa, a large town home to hundreds of Shabab fighters not far from the Ethiopian border.

Risky move, says West

The injection of Ethiopian troops is a risky move, Western officials say, because of the historic enmity between Ethiopia, a Christian-led nation, and Somalia, which is almost purely Muslim. The neighbours have clashed repeatedly since Somalia became independent in 1960, and in 2006, Ethiopian forces ousted an Islamist movement that controlled much of southern Somalia.

Last week, African Union officials said they were considering adding Ethiopian troops to the 9,000 peacekeepers in Somalia, who have taken heavy casualties recently. But the American government, a close ally of Ethiopia, seems divided over the wisdom of this. Some diplomats in the State Department are strongly against the Ethiopians jumping into Somalia again, said one American official, while the Pentagon and the C.I.A. seem to support it.

“The feeling is that the Ethiopians have the muscle, and the Kenyans don't,” said the American official, who spoke anonymously because of the delicacy of the topic. “But it would be much better for the Ethiopians to back these operations discreetly, maybe with air power and logistics, and not to storm in.”

Though Ethiopia is one of the poorest countries on earth, it boasts one of the largest armies in Africa.

In Washington, military and intelligence officials were monitoring the news media reports about the Ethiopian incursion but could not independently verify the offensive. A senior Defence Department official said it was too soon to tell whether the Ethiopian military action would weaken the Shabab further or hand the insurgents a propaganda boost.

A senior official with Somalia's transitional government, a weak and unpopular entity that survives purely on outside support, said last week that Somalia's President, Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, did not want Ethiopian troops inside Somalia, but that he was powerless to oppose them.

Residents in impoverished villages along the Ethiopia-Somalia border said on Sunday that in the past 24 hours, about 800 Ethiopian troops crossed into Somalia, towing heavy weaponry, and that they had begun to build small bases and work with a local militia.

“Brother, let the Ethiopians come because when the drought engulfed us, the Shabab prevented all kinds of assistance from reaching us,” said Leelo Ahmed, a mother of four children, living in the town of Beledweyne.

According to news services, Ethiopian officials publicly denied that any Ethiopian troops had entered Somalia, though some officials privately acknowledged that this was the case.

Instability affecting development

Kenya and Ethiopia blame Somalia's instability for hampering their own economic development, and both countries consider the Shabab, who have pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda, to be a regional threat. Yet analysts say the countries may have ulterior motives and are intervening in Somalia to install their own proxy forces who will then serve the interests of Kenya and Ethiopia.

Analysts say the key to whether the Ethiopian incursion will work depends on how long the Ethiopians stay — and what exactly they do.

“As long as the army acts with some restraint, and as long as the U.S. is careful not to back the incursion (or give the appearance of backing it), the blowback in the central regions would probably be quite limited,” said Bronwyn E. Bruton, a democracy and governance expert who wrote a provocative essay published by the Council on Foreign Relations urging the West to withdraw from Somalia.

She added that had the Ethiopians avoided a “stupid two-year occupation of Mogadishu” in 2007 and 2008, the Shabab would not have been able to capitalise on the anti-Ethiopian feelings and go on to seize power in many parts of the country. (Mohamed Ibrahim contributed reporting from Mogadishu, Somalia.)

New York Times News Service

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