MOGADISHU, Somalia -- Hundreds of Ethiopian troops in armored vehicles rolled into Somalia yesterday to protect their allies in this country's virtually powerless government from Islamic militants who control the capital.
The move could give the US-backed Somali government its only chance of curbing the Islamic militia's increasing power. But Ethiopia's incursion could also be just the provocation the militia needs to build public support for a guerrilla war.
``We will declare jihad if the Ethiopian government refuses to withdraw their troops from Somalia," a top Islamic official, Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, said.
The neighboring countries are traditional enemies, although Somalia's president, Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, has asked Ethiopia for its support.
Thousands of Somalis have taken to the streets in recent weeks to denounce witness accounts of Ethiopian troops along the border.
The United States urged Ethiopia to exercise restraint and said the United States, European Union, African Union, Arab League, and others in an international contact group on Somalia will meet soon to consider the volatile situation.
``We are watching the situation very closely," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said yesterday in Washington. ``We would urge the Ethiopian government to exercise restraint."
Somalia has been without an effective central government since warlords toppled dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991 and then turned on one another, carving much of the country into armed camps ruled by violence and clan law.
The government, which includes some warlords linked to the violence of the past, was established with the support of the United Nations to help Somalia emerge from anarchy. But the body wields no real power, has no military, and operates only in Baidoa, about 100 miles east of the Ethiopian border.
The Ethiopians, wearing their national military uniforms, deployed yesterday at the airport outside Baidoa and set up a fenced compound near the transitional president's home in the city, witnesses said.
The Islamic militia of the Supreme Islamic Courts Council stepped into the power vacuum in recent months, seizing the capital of Mogadishu and most of southern Somalia.
On Wednesday, the militia reached within 20 miles of Baidoa, prompting the government to go on high alert.
The militia began pulling back yesterday as more than 400 Ethiopian troops entered Baidoa. The soldiers smiled and waved to residents before setting up their camp, according to the witnesses, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
The United States has accused the Supreme Islamic Courts Council of having links to Al Qaeda that include sheltering suspects in the deadly 1998 bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. In a recent Internet posting, Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden urged Somalis to support the militants and warned nations not to send troops.
The Islamic militia has installed strict religious courts, sparking fears it will become a Taliban-style regime.
Ethiopia's defense, foreign, and information ministries repeatedly denied yesterday that their troops had crossed into Somalia. Ismail Hurreh, one of Somalia's deputy prime ministers, also dismissed the reports.
But late Wednesday, Ethiopia's minister of information, Berhan Hailu, said his government would intervene to prop up Somalia's transitional government.
Ethiopia sent troops into Somalia in 1993 and 1996 to quash Islamic militants attempting to establish a religious government.
In the absence of his own force, President Yusuf, a staunch secular leader who has condemned radical Islam, has apparently chosen to rely on his longtime ally, Ethiopia, for protection and to give him greater leverage at the bargaining table.
But Yusuf's reliance on Ethiopia appears to make him beholden to the country's traditional enemy and hurts his legitimacy.
Anti-Ethiopia sentiment still runs high in much of the country, which is why the government and Ethiopia, a mostly Christian nation, want to keep the troop deployment quiet.
If the competition for power should become violent, there is little doubt that Ethiopia has the superior fighting force.
This week's developments could disrupt peace talks scheduled for tomorrow and aimed at negotiating some kind of partnership between the government, which has access to international support and funding, and the Islamic group, whose authority in Somalia is undeniable.