Islamists strike at departing Ethiopians, 21 die
By Ibrahim Mohamed and Abdi Guled
MOGADISHU, Jan 14 (Reuters) - Somali Islamists fired mortars at the presidential palace and ambushed departing Ethiopian soldiers on Wednesday, starting battles that killed at least 21 people and wounded a further 48, witnesses said.
The violence underlined fears of an upsurge in bloodshed after Ethiopia's military exit began in earnest this week. Witnesses said security forces including African Union (AU) peacekeepers guarding the hill-top palace compound in the coastal capital responded to the Islamist attack with volleys of artillery shells, shaking the city for several hours.
Suspected militants from the al Shabaab group also ambushed a convoy of departing Ethiopian soldiers on a street not far from the palace. The Ethiopians fought back with a tank.
"We have collected 21 dead people and five of them could not be identified," resident and ambulance worker Musa Ali said.
Medical staff also spoke of transporting 48 wounded, including eight children, to hospitals. It was not clear how many civilians and how many fighters were among the casualties.
Some analysts say the ongoing withdrawal of some 3,000 Ethiopian soldiers will leave a vacuum, triggering more violence by rebels who have battled the U.N.-backed administration for two years, and are now increasingly fighting each other.
Others believe the Ethiopian exit could remove forces seen by many locals as occupiers and spur more moderate Islamist factions to participate in forming a new, inclusive government.
After vacating four bases on Tuesday, the Ethiopians left two more on Wednesday, one at a football stadium.
"The Ethiopians have deserted the stadium and many residents have come to watch," witness Abdullahi Hassan told Reuters.
"We see only chairs and their footprints."
HARDLINERS PLAN ATACKS
The Ethiopians have eight other bases in Mogadishu and face a 500 km (300 mile) journey through Somalia to the border.
Somalis are pessimistic about a return to peace in a nation that has suffered 18 years of incessant civil conflict.
"No Somali wants the Ethiopians to stay, but there will be chaos whether they withdraw or not," said a spokesman of Ahlu Sunna Waljamaca, a government-allied Sunni Islamist group.
He said hardliners like al Shabaab -- which Washington says has links to al Qaeda -- and militants backed by Somali exiles in Eritrea planned to fight the government and moderate groups like his if they tried to form a power-sharing administration.
Al Shabaab's national spokesman, Sheikh Muktar Robow Mansoor, told a news conference in Mogadishu his group would focus on attacking AU troops and government targets.
"Now that the Ethiopians have left the bases we used to attack, we shall launch attacks on (AU mission) AMISOM, the government and the airport," he said.
The AU has 3,500 soldiers in Somalia and wants to reinforce.
Fighting has killed more than 16,000 civilians since the start of 2007, after Addis Ababa sent military forces to help the government drive an Islamist movement out of the capital. One million people have been forced from their homes.
Ethiopia, frustrated by rifts in the Somali administration and the cost of its operation, began dismantling its main bases in Mogadishu on Tuesday.
Many civilians, though, are too scared to return to homes.
"Those who have concrete houses can go back, but there's no hope for families with houses made of iron sheets like us," said Asha Farah, a mother of four, in a refugee camp beyond the city.
"I don't see any reason for happiness. The ones who have been causing chaos are still alive and perhaps will breed more."
After the resignation of former president Abdullahi Yusuf, a new president is supposed to be elected by Jan. 26.
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