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Is Somalia in Ethiopian Army's crosshairs again?

Somalis near the border with Ethiopia say that country's troops have crossed over, raising speculation of another battle with the militant Islamists closing in on Somalia's government.

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Ethiopia's intervention would likely be aimed at bolstering Somalia's transitional president, Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, to prevent the extremist Al Shabab militia group from taking power, says Richard Cornwell, an independent political analyst in Tshwane. "That said, its intervention has to be different this time. It can't afford to be bogged down in an urban killing zone. It has to be more surgical and selective in its targets."

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Ethiopia denies crossing the border

Ethiopia's Foreign Ministry spokesman Wahade Belay denied the reports of an incursion. "This is a totally fabricated story. We have no plans to go into any of Somalia's territory," he told Reuters news agency.

Yet Ethiopia has maintained a large military presence on its border with Somalia, ever since its pullout of 3,000 troops from the country began in December 2008. Experts say that Ethiopian troops have continued to move into Somali territory on punitive missions.

The Ethiopian incursion comes just days after Al Shabab took the town of Jowhar, cutting off the government's access to territory north of Mogadishu. Islamist forces loyal to Al Shabab and Sheikh Aweys have steadily taken territory from pro-government militias, hemming in the government of Mr. Sharif and forcing the tiny African Union peacekeeper force to relocate to positions in the south of the city.

International support: a blessing and a curse

Ironically, Sharif's best chance of survival is the very real threat of his own defeat. If Sharif appears close to being toppled, the international community may be forced to give him further backing. But such backing comes with its own pitfalls.

"The bigger the Al Shabab threat gets, the more the international community is likely to support Sharif," says Mr. Cornwell. "But the more international support Sharif gets, the more he is discredited in the eyes of the Somali people, and the more people will give their support to Shabab."

One way out of this cycle, Cornwell says, is for Ethiopia to "think more selectively" about its targets. "I would imagine they don't want to put large numbers of troops into Somalia. They just need to locate Shabab's headquarters and zap it. I'm sure the Americans will be happy to help them do that, and we know the Americans have the munitions to do that."

Any Ethiopian intervention in Somalia, whether large or small, is likely to have huge political risks for Ethiopia, both among its Somali neighbors and among the large number of ethnic Somalis who live in its own restive Ogaden region.

"An Ethiopian intervention would dent Ethiopia's already tarnished image among Somalis," says Jhazbhay. "But it would clearly give the Transitional Federal Government some leeway for a while, and perhaps give it a chance to stand on its own feet."

Ethiopia's best strategy, Jhazbhay adds, may be to do nothing at all. "Whenever the Ethiopians intervene, that strengthens Somali nationalism against Ethiopia," he says. "When the international community backed Somali transitional governments over the past 14 incarnations, there was always one group in charge and other groups who were left out.

"But if the Ethiopians just let it go for a while, and allow the Somalis to develop things in their own way, which is what they did in Somaliland and the Puntland region, the Somalis do manage to come up with an inclusive government that gains legitimacy. It may take some time, but they do seem to develop things in their own way."

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