NAIROBI, Kenya — The State Department's top Africa policymaker on Tuesday warned Ethiopia not to invade Somalia, but the warning came too late, with Somalis claiming that Ethiopian troops were already rolling through their villages in trucks.
The statement from Johnnie Carson, the assistant secretary of state for African affairs, was a sign that Washington is growing increasingly wary of a month-old offensive against the Islamist militant group al Shabab that was launched by Kenya and now appears to include Ethiopia.
"We firmly believe that the best way to deal with al Shabab and the way to restore stability is working with AMISOM militarily, using them as a vehicle to advance security," Carson said in response to a question during a conference call with reporters. AMISOM is the acronym for the African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia, which is manned mostly by troops from Uganda and Burundi.
"I would remind the caller that Ethiopia went into Somalia some four and a half years ago and stayed for approximately two and a half to three years. That effort was not universally successful and led in fact to the rise of Shabab after they pulled out," Carson said.
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Carson's remarks also could be viewed as a rebuke of Kenya, another U.S. ally in East Africa. Kenyan troops invaded Somalia last month, ostensibly after kidnappings along its border with Somalia. According to U.S. diplomatic cables made public by Wikileaks, Carson was very critical in 2010 of a Kenyan plan to use proxy Somali militias to go on an offensive against al Shabab and create space for a regional administration in southern Somalia.
U.S. officials say Kenya did not consult them before launching its recent incursion.
Now, Somalis say, Ethiopia has joined the fray.
Abdi Wehliye, 43, who lives in Gurieel town in central Somalia's Galgudud region, says that fellow townsmen saw Ethiopian troops rolling up on Saturday evening. He saw them Sunday morning five kilometers outside town, where he says they have pitched camp. On Sunday, Ethiopian commanders, escorted by a small number of troops, came into the town to meet with local elders and officials, he said.
Somalis are notoriously xenophobic when it comes to outside interference in their own affairs, and Somalis view Ethiopia as a historical arch nemesis. That sentiment was used by Shabab during Ethiopia's 2006-2008 occupation to rally support for its insurgency.
The U.S. is all too aware of that history, having backed Ethiopia's military adventure in 2006. The U.S. itself pulled troops out of Somalia in the early 1990s after they became the targets of regular Somali attacks.
Wehliye said, however, that while people don't like Ethiopians, their dismay has been tempered by their anger at Shabab for its brutal and ultimately disastrous administrative tactics, which many blame for the devastating famine that is expected to leave hundreds of thousands dead this year in central and southern Somalia. Shabab banned most Western aid and recruits barely teenage boys to fight.
"I thought some people would jump and start carrying guns against Ethiopia but it seems they are not yet sure what they want," Wehliye said in a phone interview. "Many Somalis hate al Shabab for what they have done to them and their families."
Ethiopian troops have also entered central Somalia's Hiraan region, said a resident of Beledweyne town who asked to be identified only as Hussein for security reasons. He said that the Shabab had treated Somalis like "slaves in our own country" and that he welcomed the Ethiopians, who he said had arrived near Beledweyne in five trucks in recent days.
"I support anyone who helps us fight al Shabab. We want to get our freedom back. Al Shabab are the ones who brought this entire problem on us. They are the reason so many countries want to invade Somalia," he said.
Not everyone reached by phone seemed keen on an Ethiopian presence, however, a fact that U.S. officials are certain to seize on to discourage a prolonged presence inside Somalia. The Ethiopian government has categorically denied that its troops have entered Somalia.
Waeys Ahmed, who's also from Gurieel, said he would be happy to see al Shabab "wiped out."
"But with Ethiopia and Kenya coming to fight al Shabab, I don't think it's good for the interest of Somalis. They have their own agendas," he said. "This is taking us back to where we were in 2007, when al Shabab enjoyed more support from the population."
The Somali government, which from its limited control in Mogadishu can do little about the arrival of foreign troops, has struggled to find the right tone in responding to the incursions.
On Tuesday, Somalia government spokesman Abdirahman Omar Osman said that while Kenya is welcome because it entered into an agreement with his government, Ethiopia is not.
"We are a sovereign country, so foreign troops cannot enter without bilateral agreement or a legal mandate," Osman said.
But he also said he was taking the Ethiopian denials at face value, despite what Somali residents say.
"There are no Ethiopian troops on our soil," he said.
(Boswell and Yusuf are McClatchy special correspondents.)
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