Ethiopia begins Somalia withdrawal —chaos or peace next?

Ethiopia began pulling its military forces out of Somalia at the beginning of the year, having pledged to withdraw from the country by the end of 2008. Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s office said the withdrawal would take several days. A convoy of about 30 Ethiopian vehicles loaded with troops and equipment left the Somali capital, Mogadishu, as some 3,400 Ugandan and Burundian peacekeepers from the African Union began taking up positions the positions vacated by the Ethiopian forces. Hours before the withdrawal began, a roadside bomb killed two Ethiopian soldiers and a number of civilians died when troops opened fire. (WP, Jan. 3; BBC News, Jan. 2)

The Ethiopians could be leaving behind chaos. The “official” Transitional Federal Government (TFG) they were backing up controls little more than a few blocks of downtown Mogadishu. In the last week of December the TFG’s president, Abdallah Yousuf Ahmad, resigned, and scores were killed in sectarian violence. While the TFG has an official peace deal with the rebel Alliance for Re-liberation of Somalia (ARS), some rebel factions—notably al-Shabab— have refused to lay down arms.

ARS spokesman Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmad, in an interview with Middle East Media Line, expressed cautious optimism. “The Djibouti peace pact makes clear the need for the withdrawal of the Ethiopian troops from Somalia and that is what the opponents desire—an end to Ethiopia’s presence. Secondly, the Somali people have experienced other problems that an inclusive government should be able to tackle under a comprehensive reconciliation. Do the opponents have something better than the peace pact? We’ve seen what fighting is.”

He also decried recent factional violence between al-Shabab and Ahl A-Sunna wal-Jama’a (a Sufi militia which has armed to resist the fundamentalist al-Shabab). “It’s deplorable to fight one other, especially as the Ethiopian troops are expected to leave. To seize new areas, to kill civilians in the name of religion—those matters are dangerous and can lead the country into a new crisis. Those battles are out of place today, as are their motives. The fighting should be stopped. It’s not right to spill the blood of Somali people… I’m urging the warring sides to end their disputes around the negotiating table.” (Media Line, Dec. 29)

See our last posts on Somalia and the Sufis, and Ethiopia

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