MOGADISHU (Reuters) - Ethiopian troops supporting Somalia’s government withdrew completely from Mogadishu on Thursday, witnesses said, leaving a power vacuum in the capital that could lead to more bloodshed.
Islamist hardliners from the al Shabaab insurgent group have ambushed the departing soldiers and also clashed with other militias in a deepening power struggle between rebel factions.
“I saw the last convoy of Ethiopian forces passing by on the road. Most of them were walking alongside their vehicles,” said Ahmed Farax Nur, who lives on the outskirts of the capital and was woken by the tanks rumbling past in the dark.
Abdifatah Ibrahim Shaaweye, deputy governor of Banadir Region which includes Mogadishu, told Reuters the last Ethiopian troops quit their remaining bases in the city overnight.
Some analysts fear the withdrawal of an estimated 3,000 Ethiopian soldiers will cause more violence in Somalia, which has been mired in civil conflict for the last 18 years.
But others believe it could be a positive development for the Horn of Africa nation — which the United States has long feared could become a haven for militants — spurring moderate Islamists to join a new, more inclusive administration.
After the resignation of former president Abdullahi Yusuf, a new Somali president is supposed to be elected by January 26. Former prime minister Nur Hassan Hussein told a news conference in Mogadishu Thursday he would stand for the post.
The rebels have fought the Western-backed interim government for two years, and increasingly are fighting each other.
At least eight people were killed in battles Thursday between a local militia and al Shabaab in Lower Shabelle region. Residents said five more were killed in a blast targeting a vehicle carrying militiamen in the southern town of Bardheere.
“We saw the whole car burning,” witness Saida Hussein said.
At least 21 people were killed in Mogadishu Wednesday as insurgents shelled the hill-top presidential palace and ambushed departing Ethiopians in the narrow streets below.
Al Shabaab, which Washington has listed as a terrorist organization with close ties to al Qaeda, has vowed to attack African Union (AU) peacekeepers and government facilities such as the capital’s main airport after the Ethiopians leave.
The AU has 3,500 soldiers from Uganda and Burundi deployed in the city and desperately wants to reinforce the mission.
Fighting has killed more than 16,000 civilians since the start of 2007, after Addis Ababa sent military forces to help the government drive a sharia courts movement out of Mogadishu. One million people have been forced from their homes.
Ethiopia, frustrated by rifts in the Somali administration, the cost of its operation and the lack of international support, began dismantling its main bases in the capital Tuesday.
In Addis Ababa, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said Thursday his intervention in Somalia had been justified to defend the government and weaken militants.
“We had to preempt the threat posed and we did preempt it successfully,” he told reporters. “I would without hesitation do it again ... If we were to do it again, we would do it better. But we would do it nonetheless.”
Meles said Ethiopia’s exit would be completed without rush. He did not give a timeline, but said Ethiopian troops would keep a robust presence on the border to deter threats from Somalia.
He lambasted the world community for neglecting Somalia.
“The international community could have acted more forcibly to replace our presence. It did not do anything,” he said.
Reporting by Tsegaye Tadesse, editing by Michael Roddy