ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia (AP) – Ethiopia’s prime minister told parliament Thursday that he had sent military trainers to help Somalia’s struggling government, but had not deployed a fighting force.

Meles Zenawi did not say how many trainers he had sent to Ethiopia’s eastern neighbor, but that the move was in keeping with international efforts to support a transitional government seeking to establish itself in a country that has been largely lawless for 15 years.

“We have sent only trainers, who are soldiers,” Meles said, in the first official acknowledgment that Ethiopia troops have been inside Somalia. “Other than this, the army has not entered into Somalia.”

U.N. officials and local resident have long reported that Ethiopian troops were deployed inside Somali border towns and around the transitional government headquarters in Baidoa.

, 150 miles from the capital, Mogadishu.

The troops were first seen after an Islamic group, the Council of Islamic Courts, took over Mogadishu and continued to expand across most of southern and central Somalia. Some of the group’s leaders have said they will wage holy war on Ethiopia because of the troop deployment.

Meles said such threats, and reported incursions into Ethiopia by Islamic militants, could lead to war if some kind of peaceful accommodation is not reached with the Islamic courts.

“We have the right to defend ourselves against these people. We have been very patient throughout this ordeal,” Meles said. “If the incursion continues … the armed forces have a duty to respond to that.”

“But at this moment, it has not reached this level,” he added.

Meles said his country was threatened on three fronts and that he was doing everything possible to keep those conflicts from turning violent. He said that, in addition to the Islamic forces in Somalia, longtime rival Eritrea had moved troops into a U.N.-monitored demilitarized zone between the two countries and Ethiopian insurgents were threatening his government from within.

AP-ES-10-19-06 0358EDT

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