NAIROBI, Kenya — The African Union is considering an ambitious plan to stabilize Somalia that could involve using thousands of Ethiopian troops to open a new front against the al-Shabab militant group, officials of the union said Thursday.
The African Union’s peacekeepers are already battling al-Shabab in Mogadishu, the capital, and Kenyan forces have recently begun fighting al-Shabab in southern Somalia near Kismaayo. But the prospect of the Ethiopian army returning to the country under the African Union’s banner is highly charged because of Ethiopia’s bitter history in Somalia.
An official of the Somali government said Thursday that Ethiopian troops had already begun to move across the border, discomfiting Somalia’s president, Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed.
Ethiopia has one of the largest armies in Africa and has often clashed with Somalia. Ethiopian troops invaded Somalia in 2006 to oust an Islamist movement that then controlled much of the country.
Sheik Sharif was one of the movement’s leaders, and after hiding from the Ethiopians, he fled Somalia. The Ethiopian troops remained for about two years, and their occupation was hugely unpopular; thousands of civilians were killed when the troops indiscriminately shelled urban areas. Al-Shabab capitalized on the intense anti-Ethiopian feelings, and their ranks swelled.
Western and African Union officials say the Ethiopians are now eager to deal al-Shabab a crushing blow and to install their own proxies in Somalia, which could lead to even more power struggles and factional bloodshed. The Somali official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that Sheik Sharif was not happy with the prospect that Ethiopian troops would return, “but he has no choice,” because his government ruled only a small area of the capital and was powerless to block the move.
The Ethiopians are expected to work closely with Somali clan militias in the Baidoa area and are not likely to enter Mogadishu again.
A senior African Union official, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity, stressed that any Ethiopian involvement would be carefully coordinated with the existing 9,000-strong African Union peacekeeping force, which has sustained heavy casualties recently.
“The idea is to relieve pressure on AMISOM,” the official said, referring to the peacekeeping force by its acronym. “We’re looking at how neighboring countries can assist, and we are quite aware of the sensitive aspects.”