MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP) _ Witnesses reported that Ethiopian troops have returned to neighboring Somalia just over a week after they ended their unpopular two-year presence there. The Ethiopian government on Tuesday denied the claim.
The Islamists who control most of Somalia and have used the foreign presence to rally recruits vowed to fight any Ethiopian troops who did not leave.
Somalia's newly elected president told fellow African leaders, however, that he wants to improve relations with Ethiopia after having previously characterized it as an enemy.
In the Somali town of Kalabeyrka, a few miles (kilometers) from the border, resident Farhan Dheere said that Ethiopian troops in 17 military vehicles arrived Monday and set up a checkpoint.
Truck driver Botan Ali said his vehicle was searched by Ethiopian troops in Kalabeyrka on Tuesday and Somali militiamen working with the Ethiopians demanded he pay some money that they described as "tax."
Ethiopian Communication Affairs Minister Bereket Simon denied there are any Ethiopian troops in Somalia.
"We're within the bounds of Ethiopian territory and we have no intention of crossing" the border, Bereket told The Associated Press.
Somalia's weak U.N.-backed government called in the Ethiopian troops in December 2006 to oust an umbrella Islamic group that had controlled southern Somalia and the capital for six months. The Islamists launched an insurgency that has killed thousands of civilians.
The last Ethiopian troops withdrew Jan. 25 in a move widely welcomed by Somalis who had viewed the troops as an occupying force.
The chairman of the Council of Islamic Courts in the Somali region of Hiran where witnesses reported seeing Ethiopian troops urged them to leave.
"We, the authorities in the region, will not accept it. If they do not leave within 24 hours we will fight with them," Sheik Abdurrahman Ibrahim Ma'ow told The Associated Press by telephone.
Somalia and Ethiopia have been rivals for decades, and fought in the late 1970s over a southeastern region of Ethiopia populated principally by people of Somali origin.
The Ethiopian army, one of Africa's largest, was viewed by many Somalis as abusive and heavy-handed. Ethiopia long said it wanted to pull out after stabilizing Somalia, but opponents said Ethiopia -- a mainly Orthodox Christian country -- was interested in preventing an Islamist regime in neighboring Somalia.
In his first speech to his fellow African leaders, Somalia's new president, Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, said his country will lay aside its decades-long animosity for Ethiopia. It was unclear if he was aware of reports of Ethiopian troops being in his country.
"I have a commitment to create a peaceful life for my people," Ahmed said, speaking in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. "I will do my best to create a good relationship between Somalia, Ethiopia and Djibouti. I think all of them, they are doing well to create a peaceful life in the Horn of Africa. And we have to respect each other and to respect our sovereignty.
Ahmed was a key leader of the Council of Islamic Courts that ran Mogadishu for six months in 2006 before Ethiopian soldiers drove them from power. Since his election Saturday as president, he has vowed to part with his former extremist allies and pursue a moderate Islamic policy.
He also said his government will play a role in combating piracy off the coast of Somalia. The coastline of the lawless Horn of Africa nation has become a haven for pirates, who last year seized more than 40 vessels.