Addis Ababa (AFP) - US President Barack Obama on Monday praised key African ally Ethiopia for its fight against Shebab militants in Somalia, but also challenged Addis Ababa on its democratic record.
Obama is on the first-ever trip by a US president to Africa's second most populous nation, a close strategic partner for Washington credited for beating back the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamists but a country also much criticised for its rights record.
"Part of the reasons we've seen this shrinkage of Shebab in East Africa is that we've had our regional teams," Obama said, referring to African Union and Somali government troops.
"We don't need to send our own Marines in to do the fighting: the Ethiopians are tough fighters," Obama said, adding: "We've got more work to do. We have to now keep the pressure on."
The Shebab has in recent days lost two key strongholds following a major offensive by AU troops -- with Ethiopians and their local allies credited with doing much of the fighting.
While the United States does not have boots on the ground, it carries out frequent drone strikes against Shebab leaders.
Speaking after talks with Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, whose ruling party won 100 percent of seats in parliament two months ago, Obama gave the blunt message that the country -- while credited with strong economic growth -- needed to perform better on basic rights.
"There is still more work to do, and I think the prime minister is the first to admit there is still more to do," Obama said.
Rights groups have complained that Obama's visit to Addis Ababa could add credibility to a government they accuse of suppressing democratic rights -- including the jailing of journalists and critics -- with anti-terrorism legislation.
"There are certain principles we think have to be upheld," Obama added. "Nobody questions our need to engage with large countries where we may have differences on these issues. We don't advance or improve these issues by staying away."
- Democracy 'not skin deep' -
Hailemariam, however, pushed back against criticism that his government has quashed opposition voices and suppressed press freedom.
"Our commitment to democracy is real and not skin deep," he insisted, adding that Ethiopia is a "fledgling democracy, we are coming out of centuries of undemocratic practices".
The Ethiopian premier also said an independent press -- currently virtually non-existent -- was needed.
"For us it's very important to be criticised, because we also get feedback to correct our mistakes. Media is one of the institutions that have to be nurtured for democracy," Hailemariam said.
But Ethiopian journalist Reeyot Alemu, released from five years in jail earlier this month, and who won a UN press freedom prize in 2013, dismissed the comments.
"They are not willing to do anything -- still today they are harassing and arresting people," she told AFP, adding that she would wait to see whether Ethiopia keeps its word after Obama leaves. "If they (the US) want to pressure the government, they can."
Obama flew into a rainy Addis Ababa late Sunday after a landmark trip to Kenya, his father's birthplace, where he spoke frankly on human rights and corruption.
Talks on Monday were held in Ethiopia's presidential palace, a sprawling compound in the heart of Addis Ababa, which still houses the country's unique black-maned Abyssinian lions in the grounds, once the symbol of the "Lion of Judah", former Emperor Haile Selassie.
- Time for 'breakthrough' -
Obama held talks with regional leaders on the 19-month-old civil war in South Sudan, attempting to build African support for decisive action against the country's leaders if they reject an ultimatum to end the carnage by August 17, a new deadline set by regional mediators.
"On South Sudan, there was widespread unanimity about the urgency and severity of the situation on the ground," a US official said, after a meeting lasting nearly two hours.
Signalling a deeper commitment to ending violence that has killed tens of thousands of people and forced more than two million from their homes, Obama is understood to have increased pressure for tougher sanctions and a possible arms embargo.
He told reporters it was now time for a "breakthrough" in peace efforts.
"The humanitarian situation is worsening," he said. "We don't have a lot of time. The conditions on the ground are getting much, much worse."
South Sudan's rivals -- President Salva Kiir and rebel leader Riek Machar, who will not be at the meeting -- effectively face an ultimatum, a "final best offer", according to one senior administration official.
On Tuesday, Obama will become the first US president to address the African Union, the 54-member continental bloc, at its gleaming Chinese-built headquarters.
While Kenya launched one of the biggest security operations ever seen in Nairobi to host Obama from Friday evening to Sunday, the habitual reach of Ethiopia's powerful security forces made for few obvious extra precautions ahead of his arrival in Addis Ababa.
Ethiopia has come far from the global headlines generated by the 1984 famine, experiencing near-double-digit economic growth and huge infrastructure investment that have made it one of Africa's top-performing economies and a magnet for foreign investment.