Hundreds of Ethiopian troops poured into a western Somalia border town on Saturday, opening a new front against the militant group al-Shabab, which now faces hostile militaries on three sides.
Resident Mohammed Abdi said hundreds of residents fled Beledweyne on Saturday after hundreds of Ethiopian and Somali troops moved in. Capt. Hashi Nor of the Somali military confirmed that Somali and Ethiopian troops had moved in.
"I saw Ethiopian troops standing at the doors of neighboring homes. Somali soldiers are also searching the homes," Abdi said. "Al-Shabab retreated back to Bulo Burte and also many of the residents fled, and those who remained are in their homes."
The military movement appears to be a third front against al-Shabab, Somalia's strongest militant group. Kenyan troops moved into Somalia in mid-October in a push against the militants in the country's south. African Union troops from Uganda, Burundi and most recently from Djibouti have mostly pushed al-Shabab fighters out of the capital, Mogadishu.
"We are in full control of Beledweyne now and our troops will move forward in the coming hours," Nor, the Somali military officer, said by phone from Beledweyne.
Abdi said the sound of gunfire could be heard in Beledweyne but that he did not believe actual battle was taking place. However, al-Shabab on its official Twitter feed said that a battle that began at 6 a.m. was still "raging" in the city as of midday.
Al-Shabab said that a "majority" of Beledweyne residents joined al-Shabab "to thwart the offensive." It claimed that dozens of Ethiopian troops had been killed, but that was impossible to verify and was likely an exaggerated claim. It later said on Twitter that al-Shabab was executing a planned withdrawal and would surround the city.
Somali Prime Minister Abdiweli Mohamed Ali said in a statement that Somalia's armed forces had taken over "strategic places" from al-Shabab in the central region of Hiran on Saturday. He did not make direct mention of involvement by Ethiopian troops.
"We are officially requesting the international community and the neighboring countries like Ethiopia to stand on our shoulders and help the Somali people and their government for the historic operation to liberate the country from this brutal terror group," he said. "We are also asking the humanitarian aid agencies to reach and help people living in the areas liberated from al-Shabab."
U.S.-backed Ethiopian troops moved into Somalia in 2006 at the invitation of the weak, U.N.-backed Somali government. But the incursion was seen by many Somalis as an unpopular invasion and actually helped give birth to the al-Shabab movement. Ethiopians pulled out in early 2009, and there are fears that a new push by Somalia could be a propaganda coup for al-Shabab.
Ethiopia in November said it was considering whether to contribute troops to the African Union force in Somalia. Kenya's parliament recently voted for its forces to join the AU force. That move is awaiting approval by the United Nations.
The central Somalia town of Beledweyne lies about 20 miles (30 kilometers) from the border with Ethiopia. A commercial hub, it lies on a key road that links Mogadishu with northern Somalia. Control of the town has changed hands frequently in recent months as different militias push to seize control of it.
A Somali employee of The Associated Press contributed to this report.