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Ethiopia enters Somalia, but avoids African Union joint operation

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After weeks of denials, the Ethiopian government has used the advent of the new year to officially acknowledge it had rejoined the battle against militants in neighboring Somalia.

"Together with Transitional Federal Government forces the town of Beledwyne has been liberated from al-Shabaab," Communications Minister Bereket Simon said on Jan. 3.

The arrival of Ethiopian troops from the west – who officially left in 2009 after deposing the Islamic Courts in a 2.5 year campaign – buttresses the efforts of Ugandan, Burundian, Djiboutian and Kenyan forces, all now fighting under the banner of the African Union.

Unlike the Kenyans, who initially independently entered southern Somalia in October, Bereket says Ethiopia has no intention of becoming part of the African Union operation – and so receiving funds for their efforts from the European Union and others. This self-reliant stance backs up official statements it has no intention of staying for long.

Ethiopian troops first crossed the border again in the middle of November, according to The New York Times. As the government denied the claims of multiple eye-witnesses, the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development – a group of seven East African nations chaired currently by Ethiopia's leader Meles Zenawi – requested support from Ethiopian forces at a meeting a few days later.

The subsequent coyness about the operation is due to not wanting to hand Islamist extremists Al Shabab a propaganda coup about an invading Christian army, sources close to the Ethiopian government say. Although the diverse country of 82.9 million contains 25 million Muslims, Ethiopia has a long-standing connection to Orthodox Christianity and Christians comprise 62 percent of the population, according to a 2008 census.

While ethnic Somali rebels sporadically attack in Ethiopia's Ogaden region, which Somalia attempted to annex in an unsuccessful 1977 invasion, it does not fear a resurgent neighbour. "Ethiopia is not worried about a strong Somalia for many years," says an adviser to the Ethiopian government, privately.

Instead, the incursion – which is described as closer to a continuation of cross-border raiding than a repeat of 2006 – is a result of Ethiopia's desire to fulfil its role as regional powerhouse and exploit a unique opportunity to dispose of Al Shabab.

Even if the Al Qaeda-linked rebels are diffused, cutting off funds by controlling the likes of Kismayo port while attacking on multiple fronts could lead to demoralization, defections, and moves toward negotiations by moderate factions, it is believed.   

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As with the June deployment of Ethiopian peacekeepers in the flashpoint Sudanese region of Abyei, such action helps Ethiopia maintain its tight relations with influential Western allies.

Although there is little reason for optimism, the eventual onset of peace in Somalia would give land-locked Ethiopia the stable neighbour it desires, and access to its ports. 

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