Ethiopia to withdraw from Somalia by end of year

November 28th, 2008 | by addis portal |

MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP) — Ethiopia announced Friday that it will withdraw its forces from Somalia by the end of the year, leaving this country’s weak and fractured government to face an increasingly powerful Islamic insurgency.

Ethiopia — the region’s military powerhouse — has sent thousands of troops to support Somalia’s U.N.-backed government, which has failed to assert control over the country. The decision adds urgency to the Somali government’s long-standing request for international peacekeepers to deploy here.

“Regardless of what happens, we have decided to withdraw our troops from Somalia at the end of year,” Ethiopian Foreign Ministry spokesman Wahide Bellay said Friday in a telephone interview from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Somali President Abdullahi Yusuf has asked for a U.N. peacekeeping force to replace a small African Union force that has largely been confined to its bases in the capital because of the violence. AU peacekeepers have struggled to maintain security, with only 2,600 of the mission’s approved 8,000 troops on the ground.

The U.N. Security Council has said that, if Somalia can improve security and political reconciliation, it would consider sending U.N. peacekeepers to replace AU forces.

On Friday, Wahide urged the international community to send peacekeepers, but said Ethiopia would not wait any longer for such a force to be assembled.

Rashid Abdi, a Somalia analyst at the International Crisis Group think tank, said the Ethiopians may have decided to seal the border with troops and air power.

“They can … continue to make military incursions across the border without troops on the ground who will be open to attack,” he said.

Somalia’s transitional government was formed in 2004, but then lost control of the capital, Mogadishu, and most of the south to Islamic militants. In December 2006, it called in troops from neighboring Ethiopia to help retake control. But the insurgency remains a disruptive force and a threat to Yusuf’s government.

A worsening humanitarian crisis has been fueled by drought and high food prices.

Ethiopia is a key U.S. ally and the Pentagon sent a small number of Special Operations troops with the Ethiopian forces in 2006. In early 2007 the U.S. conducted several airstrikes in an attempt to kill suspected al-Qaida members.

Ethiopia is a traditional rival of overwhelmingly Muslim Somalia. It has large Christian and Muslim populations as well as one of Africa’s largest armies, which many Somalis see as abusive and heavy-handed. Al-Shabab, which means “the Youth,” mounts almost daily mortar attacks, suicide bombings and ambushes.

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