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October 27th, 2008 | by addis portal |

Oct. 27 (Bloomberg) — Ethiopian soldiers will begin a phased withdrawal from neighboring Somalia next month following the signing of a cease-fire agreement between the Somali transitional government and a faction of the main opposition.

Ethiopian troops will start pulling out of the capital, Mogadishu, and the central town of Beledweyne on Nov. 21, according to a copy of yesterday’s agreement e-mailed by United Nations Envoy Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah‘s office today. They will be replaced by peacekeepers from the African Union and militias loyal to Somalia’s government and the opposition Alliance for the Re-Liberation, or ARS, of Somalia.

U.S.-backed Ethiopian forces invaded Somalia in December 2006, ousting an Islamist government and installing the UN- supported government. Fighting between pro-government forces and Islamic insurgents has driven one million people from their homes. Somalia’s most powerful opposition group, the al-Shabaab militia, is not party to yesterday’s agreement.

“Some very important principles have now been established,” Ould-Abdallah said in an e-mailed statement. “The challenge is to ensure that concrete action is taken to show the Somali people how this will benefit them.”

The agreement revives an accord signed June 9 in Djibouti that called for a cease-fire and Ethiopia’s withdrawal from the country within four months. Since that deal fighting has intensified between Ethiopian troops and Islamist and clan- backed militias. Al-Shabaab has said it will not make peace until all Ethiopian troops are withdrawn from Somalia.

Police Force

The cease-fire will take effect Nov. 5. The government and the ARS will form a 10,000-strong police force to maintain peace in Mogadishu and surrounding areas. The two groups have asked the UN to pay for the police force.

Fighting since the Ethiopian invasion has created one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises with an estimated 3.2 million — about 40 percent of the population — in need of emergency humanitarian assistance, according to the UN.

The seas off Somalia’s have become the world’s most dangerous for piracy and at least 228 Somali refugees have died and a further 262 had gone missing this year attempting to cross the Gulf of Aden to neighboring Yemen in open boats. The U.S. says Islamists in Somalia are harboring suspected al Qaeda members and has launched at least six air strikes into Somalia since the Ethiopian invasion.

The text of the agreement didn’t set a timetable for the withdrawal of all of Ethiopia’s estimated 10,000 to 15,000 Ethiopian troops. Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi hasn’t specified a timeline, while saying the country will accept any Somali government that is able to bring peace to the country.

“If the people of Somalia have a government, even one not positively inclined to Ethiopia, it would be better than the current situation,” Meles said in an address to Ethiopia’s parliament on Oct. 16. “Having a stable government in place in Somalia is in our national interests.”

Wahde Belay, a spokesman for Ethiopia’s Foreign Ministry, declined to comment when contacted today. The mobile phone of Bereket Simon, an adviser to Meles, was switched off.

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