JAWHAR, Somalia — The leader of the alliance of Islamic militias that seized Somalia's capital said Saturday that 300 Ethiopian soldiers had entered the country to help his rivals, but he promised not to attack the weak transitional government that represented his only challenge.
An Ethiopian official denied the allegations by Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, but said his government had massed troops along the border and was monitoring the Islamic Courts Union's advance across Somalia.
Ahmed said the Ethiopian troops entered the country Saturday through the southwestern border town of Dolo.
"Ethiopia has crossed our borders and are heading for us. They are supporting the transitional federal government," he said.
Dolo is at the intersection of the Kenyan, Ethiopian and Somalian borders and on the road to Baidoa, where Somalia's interim government is based and has been increasingly surrounded by the Islamic militias.
Local officials in Dolo said about 50 armored vehicles with Ethiopian soldiers had passed the town and Luuq, about 40 miles away. There were conflicting reports on whether they were heading to Baidoa or Jawhar.
Ahmed, whose Islamic Courts Union captured Somalia's capital, Mogadishu, on June 5 after months of fighting with an alliance of warlords allegedly backed by the United States, held out an olive branch to the transitional government.
"We are willing to negotiate and work with them even though the transitional federal government did not come from the popular support of the Somalia people," he said, noting that it was formed through international mediation in neighboring Kenya. "They were selected by our enemies in neighboring countries."
Ahmed was referring to Ethiopia, which has intervened in Somalia in the past to prevent Islamic extremists from taking power. Ethiopians were key power brokers in talks that led to President Abdullahi Yusuf's transitional government in 2004. Yusuf, a former warlord, had asked for Ethiopian troops to back up his government.
In a statement Saturday, Yusuf said he was willing to hold talks with the Islamic Courts Union if it agreed to mediation by Yemen. He said that the ICU must stop its advance and agree not to enter any more towns, and that it must recognize the government and the constitution.
El Ghassim Wane, a senior African Union official speaking from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, said the organization's Peace and Security Council would meet Monday to decide the details of a peacekeeping mission. Somalia's parliament voted Wednesday to seek foreign peacekeepers' help.
The Islamic Courts Union, which the United States accuses of harboring Al Qaeda suspects, has swept across southern Somalia installing clan-based, religiously oriented municipal administrations.
An ICU spokesman said the last two warlords who ceded control of the Somalian capital fled aboard a U.S. warship Saturday. But the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, which patrols international waters off Somalia and is based in Bahrain, said it had no reports that any of its ships had picked up the warlords.
Abdi Rahman Osman, a spokesman for the Islamic Courts Union, said Muse Sudi Yalahow and Bashir Rage left Mogadishu late Friday on a boat and were later picked up by the warship.
U.S. officials have acknowledged cooperating with the secular warlords against the Islamic group.
The departure of Yalahow and Rage from Mogadishu would mean that the 11-member warlord-led Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism has collapsed.
Somalia in effect has been without a government since dictator Mohamed Siad Barre's ouster in 1991. Yusuf's government is supported by Somalia's neighbors, the United Nations, the United States and the European Union.