MOGADISHU (AP) â€” Ethiopian troops who helped Somalia’s government drive out Islamist fighters began withdrawing from this Horn of Africa nation on Tuesday in military trucks and tanks.
Experts fear an Ethiopian withdrawal could leave a power vacuum and even lead to a return to the anarchy and warlord rule of the past unless a proposed African peacekeeping force arrives quickly. But Tuesday, the start of their withdrawal was portrayed as a positive step. Some in Somalia had resented the presence of troops from a traditional rival.
“As of today, the Ethiopian troops have started to withdraw from Somalia. We are grateful that they played an important role in the restoration of law and order in the country,” Somali government spokesman Abdirahman Dinari said.
Ethiopia’s government spokesman, Zemedkun Tekle, confirmed Tuesday’s pullout but would provide no further details.
Nearly 200 people gathered at the former National University in Mogadishu, cheering as the Ethiopians moved out. “Leave us alone and let us solve our problems,” the crowd chanted.
Many Somalis resent the presence of Ethiopian forces.
Somalia, a Muslim country, and Ethiopia, which has a large Christian population, fought a brutal war in 1977.
“I am very happy the Ethiopians are leaving because it will end clashes in which civilians are the victims,” said Ilmi Shardi Mahad, a resident in Mogadishu’s Hurwa district, considered a hotbed of support for the Islamists.
Witnesses said Ethiopian troops killed three civilians there Monday during a raid on a house.
The Islamic Council has played on that traditional rivalry, saying the group would launch an Iraq-style guerrilla war on Ethiopian troops here. Sheikh Ahmed Muumin, a member of the Islamic Council who contacted the Associated Press by telephone, said Tuesday: “The withdrawal of Ethiopia will be the end of our ongoing insurgency.” It was not clear whether his views represented that of the Islamist leadership, which is largely in hiding.
One top leader of the ousted movement, apparently afraid for his life now that the once-powerful group has been chased into hiding, surrendered to authorities and is in custody in neighbouring Kenya.
Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, considered a moderate who could contribute to rebuilding Somalia, went to a Kenyan police station along the Somali border Sunday and was flown to Nairobi, according to a police report seen by the AP. He is not believed to be wanted by the authorities, as are other members of the Islamist group.
US Ambassador to Kenya Michael Ranneberger, who has said Ahmed is a moderate Islamist leader the US believes should be part of a national reconciliation process in Somalia, plans to meet with Ahmed this week.
The ambassador, who also represents US interests in Somalia, “will urge Sheikh Sharif to counsel his supporters not to carry out violence and to support the development of an inclusive government”, the US embassy said in a statement.
Ahmed was the chairman of the Executive Council of Islamic Courts and shared the leadership with Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, who was chairman of the Courtsâ€™ legislative council.
Aweys is on a US list of people with suspected ties to Al Qaeda, though he has repeatedly denied having ties to international terrorists.
According to a new Al Qaeda videotape, Al Qaeda’s deputy leader vowed that mujahedeen would “break [the] backs” of the Ethiopians in Somalia. The footage of Ayman Zawahri was released Monday by a US group that tracks terror messages.
Somalia’s government has been appealing for peacekeepers to help it stabilise this chaotic nation, especially as Ethiopia has been eager to withdraw for weeks.
On Friday, the African Union Peace and Security Council approved a plan to send about 8,000 African peacekeepers, including nine infantry battalions, to Somalia for a six-month mission that would eventually be taken over by the UN. Malawi and Uganda have said they want to contribute, but no firm plans are in place. Somali President Abdullahi Yusuf arrived in Kigali, Rwanda, on Tuesday to meet with the country’s president, Paul Kagame. Rwanda has said it’s unlikely to offer troops because it already has nearly 2,500 troops as peacekeepers in Sudan.