WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Somalia must not become a proxy battleground for warring neighbors Ethiopia and Eritrea, a senior U.S. official said on Monday as he urged Islamists to join talks with Somalia's weak interim government.
Fears of a regional war are rising due to Ethiopia's support of Somalia's interim government and Eritrea's apparent backing of the Islamists, who control the capital Mogadishu and are gaining more ground in the lawless Horn of Africa state.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Ethiopia and Eritrea, rivals involved in a border dispute, must take steps not to escalate tensions in Somalia.
"(I) would hope that states not try to use Somalia as a proxy for any of their disputes. It would be rather unfortunate for Somalia, as well as other countries in the region," said McCormack.
"We do have concerns about some other countries, outside countries involved in Somalia; various troop activities," he added, without providing details.
The Islamists have accused Ethiopia of sending in troops to protect the interim government and declared holy war against Ethiopia this month. Addis Ababa denies any incursion and says its only contribution was several hundred armed military trainers.
Eritrea, for its part, denies U.S. charges of sending weapons to the Islamists.
The Islamists, whom the U.S. accuses of harboring al Qaeda operatives, have said they will not continue with a third round of peace talks with the Somali government until Ethiopian troops withdraw. The talks were due to begin in Khartoum on Monday.
McCormack urged the Islamists to reconsider this stand.
"It is unfortunate that they have placed those conditions on meeting with the transitional federal institutions. We continue to support those institutions. They are not very well developed and rather weak," he added.
In September negotiations, both sides agreed in principle to create joint military forces and reconvene for power-sharing talks on political and security issues. But that has not happened.
"The only way that you're going to improve the situation in Somalia, for the Somalian people, is to try to have the various constituent groups come together for a common solution that benefits all of the Somalian people," said McCormack.
The United States does not have an embassy in Somalia, but McCormack said Washington was in contact with both the interim authority as well as the governments of Ethiopia and Eritrea.
The United States has an unfortunate history with Somalia.
In response to a famine, the United States led a military intervention into Somalia in 1992 but left two years later after the "Black Hawk Down" incident in which 18 U.S. soldiers and hundreds of Somalis were killed in Mogadishu.
Since then, Somalia has been a focus of U.S. efforts in trying to prevent the Horn of Africa from becoming a haven for terrorists.
Earlier this year, the United States was accused of covertly funding a group of self-styled "anti-terrorism" warlords who were ousted from Mogadishu by the Islamists.