Ethiopia premier makes landmark visit to Somalia

MOGADISHU (AP) — Ethiopia’s prime minister visisted Mogadishu and promised that if peace were consolidated in Somalia, he would withdraw troops sent to help the government put down an Islamic insurgency.

Meles Zenawi, the highest ranking foreign official to visit Mogadishu in years, was “paying a friendly visit to Somalia” on Tuesday and meeting with the president and prime minister, Somali government spokesman Abdi Haji Gobdon told the Associated Press. Security for him was extremely tight in a city where insurgents have launched frequent mortar attacks and suicide bombs.

Meles also visited Mogadishu’s highly influential clan elders.

“He told them, ‘If you make peace, I will withdraw my troops as soon as possible,”‘ Gobdon said.

Ethiopia, the region’s military powerhouse, was vital in helping the Somali government drive out Islamic radicals who ruled much of the country for six months last year. But many in predominantly Muslim Somalia resent having troops from neighbouring Ethiopia, which has a large Christian population. The countries fought two brutal wars, the last in 1977.

Ethiopia reopened its embassy in Somalia in late May for the first time in 30 years.

The Ethiopian troops here come under regular insurgent attacks. On Monday, Ethiopian troops fired at a would-be suicide bomber speeding towards their base, blowing up the car and killing the bomber and a civilian standing nearby.

African Union peacekeepers who began arriving in March also have come under attack. The peacekeepers, from Uganda, are the first here in more than a decade.

Ted Dagne, a specialist in African Affairs at the Congressional Research Service, the research arm of the US Congress, said Meles’ visit “doesn’t really represent a new era in Ethiopian-Somali relations.” “For many Somalis, they see the presence of Ethiopian troops as an occupation force,” he said.

In recent months, several top officials have made trips into Somalia.

John Holmes, the UN undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs, visited Mogadishu last month, the top US diplomat for Africa, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer, was here in April.

Somalia descended into chaos in 1991, when warlords ousted longtime dictator Mohammad Siad Barre and then turned on one another.

Meles has not set foot in Mogadishu for years, but he does have a history here. Under the protection of Barre, Meles organised the rebellion that brought him to power from a base in Mogadishu.

Much of Somalia has been ruled by violence and clan law for years. The US sent troops in 1992 as part of a UN relief operation for tens of thousands of starving civilians, but in 1993 clan militiamen shot down two Black Hawk helicopters and killed 18 American soldiers.

US forces withdrew in 1994 and the UN peacekeeping operation in Somalia was eventually abandoned in 1995.

Somalia’s government had struggled to survive since forming in 2004 with backing from the United Nations, and was sidelined by the radical Islamic group until Ethiopia’s military intervened December 24 and turned the tide.

But insurgents linked to the Islamic group, known as the Council of Islamic Courts, have launched a guerrilla war, saying the government is allowing Ethiopia to “occupy” the country.

The US has long accused the Islamic group of having ties to      Al Qaeda, which the council denies.

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