Ethiopia says final Somalia pullout under way

January 2, 2009

The final phase of Ethiopia’s troop pullout from neighbouring Somalia comes at a time of deep political confusion and in the dying stages of US President George W. Bush’s administration, Addis Ababa’s staunchest ally.

“We have already started to implement our withdrawal plan. It will take some more days. It is a process and it will take some time,” Bereket Simon, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s spokesman, said.

Ethiopia invaded Somalia in 2006 to rescue an embattled transitional administration and oust the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), which had taken control of most of the country and started imposing a strict form of Sharia.

Ethiopian forces were still operating in Mogadishu Friday. Two soldiers were killed in a roadside bomb explosion in the capital, sparking retaliatory fire that left seven civilians dead, according to witnesses.

“A bomb exploded near a group of Ethiopian soldiers at the K4 crossroads. There were many civilian victims,” Somali police colonel, Ali Hasan, told AFP, referring to a southern district in the capital.

“The Ethiopian soldiers were combing the area for explosive devices and were struck by a roadside bomb blast. I saw the torn dead bodies of two of them,” said Mohamed Abdullahi Jeri, a resident.

“As a result, the Ethiopian soldiers sprayed bullets in all directions, killing seven civilians, including a woman,” he added.

Ethiopia announced late last year that it would complete its troop pullout by the end of 2008 but later said it could take a few more days in order to ensure a smooth transition.

“When we talked about the end of the year, we meant that the withdrawal would have started by that time,” Bereket said.

“We wanted to consult with the African Union and the contributing countries about our withdrawal,” he added.

There are currently some 3,600 Ugandan and Burundian African Union (AU) peacekeepers in Somalia who are due to take over security duties until joint units involving government forces and moderate opposition factions are established.

AU forces have already started taking up military positions left vacant by Ethiopian forces, who have significantly scaled back their presence across the country in recent months.

Since they were first deployed in March 2007, ill-equipped and under-funded AU peacekeepers have been unable to restore stability in Somalia, where fighting between Ethiopian-backed government forces and an Islamist-led insurgency continues to rage.

When the ICU was ousted in early 2007, the Shebab, the former youth and military wing of the ICU, engaged in a bruising guerrilla war against Somali government troops and Ethiopian forces.

Ethiopia’s pullout was agreed upon by the Somali government and the more moderate wing of the Islamist-led political opposition during UN-sponsored reconciliation talks in Djibouti.

Ethiopia’s continued presence in Somalia has been the main argument used by Islamist insurgents and allied clan militias for their struggle.