Ethiopian troops and Somali government forces have seized control of a key Somali city after battling Islamist rebels on the outskirts, leaving at least 18 people dead, witnesses said.
The loss of Beledweyne would deal a blow to the Shebab insurgents who control large parts of southern Somalia but are facing increasing pressure from government forces and regional armies.
But the hardline Shebab group denied it was defeated in Beledweyne, a strategic town about 30 kilometres from the Ethiopian border in the Hiran region of central Somalia.
"The fighting started this morning after our forces supported by the Ethiopian military attacked the enemy's positions on the outskirts of Beledweyne," Somali government official Bare Abdulahi said from the scene yesterday.
"They lost in the battle and we have penetrated into their barracks, killing nearly 20 of their fighters before taking control of the city," he added.
"The Somali government forces alone entered the city and they are securing it now."
The Al-Qaeda-linked Shebab have been battling Kenyan forces in the south and African Union and government forces in the capital Mogadishu.
Last month, residents said several hundred Ethiopian troops crossed into Hiran and Galgudud in central Somalia, but Ethiopia, which invaded Somalia in 2006 with US backing, dismissed the reports as "absolutely not true".
On Saturday, witness Abdirahman Isa said he saw Somali government troops accompanied by armed trucks belonging to Ethiopian forces entering Beledwyne.