Militants from the insurgent group al-Shabab appeared to be gathering hundreds of fighters and attempting to recruit even more in villages outside a Somalia border town invaded by Ethiopian troops over the weekend, residents said Monday.
Hundreds of Ethiopian troops moved into the Somali town of Beledweyne on Saturday, opening a third front against al-Shabab militants, who also face Kenyan troops in Somalia's south and African Union troops in the capital, Mogadishu.
Residents in Beledweyne said Monday that they welcome the presence of Ethiopia's military because it has forced al-Shabab militants out of the town. But a resident in a nearby village said that militants were amassing hundreds of fighters in forests outside Beledweyne. Bearded, masked men also tried to persuade locals in the town of Bulo Burte to join what they were calling "holy jihad," the resident said.
"We fear they will conscript our children because they are asking for more fighters," said Elmi Kheyre, a local elder. "They also visited Quranic schools and asked teachers to convince students to join al-Shabab. We fear rampant conscription of children and elderly people."
Ethiopian troops invaded Somalia in 2006, spawning fierce resistance and the militant group that has become al-Shabab. But residents on Monday said that so far they welcome the Ethiopians' presence. Harsh punishments _ lashings, amputations and stonings _ and strict social rules enforced by al-Shabab has eroded the group's popularity.
"We really feel like we are in a new world after al-Shabab left us," Ali Abdullahi, a resident in Beledweyne, said by phone. "People are free. There is no longer any oppression and fear. The oppressors have left."
Residents say cafes and other social sites are crowded with people talking about their lives under al-Shabab's rule.
"Now people are feeling ... that al-Shabab are gone for good," said Sadiya Hussein, a mother of three.
"If Ethiopians joined the war, we felt it's the final game for al-Shabab. We ask the Ethiopians to avoid killing our people like they did before."
Control of Beledweyne has lurched back and forth between al-Shabab and Somali government fighters and militias. In previous years when Ethiopian troops entered people fled and businesses, schools and mosques closed. Residents said Monday that Ethiopian troops were mingling with locals in cafes and at businesses, showing some sort of sense of trust.
"Previously we feared we will be harmed by Islamists if we do business with Ethiopians," said Nor Sheik, who has a small shop. "But we can now do business with them because the Islamists are no more and will never return," he said, perhaps overly confidently.
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. 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 is 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.
Associated Press reporter Abdi Guled in Hargeisa, Somalia contributed to this report.