/ 14 January 2009

Fear and threats as Ethiopian troops quit Mogadishu

Few Somalis expressed hope for the future on Wednesday after Ethiopian troops quit bases in Mogadishu and Islamist insurgents said they would launch more attacks.

Some analysts say the withdrawal of an estimated 3 000 Ethiopian soldiers supporting the United Nations-backed interim government could leave a power vacuum. They forecast more violence from rebels who have been fighting the administration for two years.

Others hope it could be positive, removing forces seen by many Somalis as occupiers and spurring more moderate Islamist factions to get involved in forming a new, inclusive government.

”No Somali wants the Ethiopians to stay, but there will be chaos whether they withdraw or not,” Sheikh Abdullahi Sheikh Abu Yusuf, spokesperson of Ahlu Sunna Waljamaca, a government-allied Sunni Islamist group, told Reuters.

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.

Sheikh Hassan Yacqub, an al-Shabaab spokesperson in Kismayu, a strategic southern port seized by the group in August, said he doubted Ethiopia would withdraw completely from its neighbour.

”If they do pull out it will be due to Islamists’ attacks, not requests nor negotiations. We shall continue fighting them until there is no single Ethiopian in Somalia,” he told Reuters.

‘No hope’
Fighting has killed more than 16 000 civilians since the start of last year, when Addis Ababa sent forces to help the government drive an Islamist movement out of the capital.

One million people have been forced from their homes, triggering a humanitarian disaster that has been worsened by drought, hyper-inflation and high food and fuel prices.

On Tuesday, Ethiopian troops abandoned their main bases in Mogadishu. But many civilians remain too scared to return to homes that were rocked by near-daily artillery and heavy machine gun battles between government forces, their Ethiopian allies and various armed Islamist factions.

Asha Farah, a mother-of-four, said it was too early to consider taking her children back to their ill-defended home.

”Those who have concrete houses can go back, but there’s no hope for families with houses made of iron sheets like us,” she said by telephone from a squalid camp for displaced people at Elasha, on the outskirts of the bombed-out coastal city.

”I don’t see any reason for happiness. The ones who have been causing chaos are still alive and perhaps will breed more.”

Somalia, which the United States has long feared may become a haven for militants, has been mired in conflict for 18 years.

Adding to the chaos, pitched battles between rival Islamist factions — al-Shabaab and Ahlu Sunna — have killed more than 50 people in the central Galgadud region in recent days.

Aid workers say about 50 000 civilians have fled the area, and the UN humanitarian agency OCHA says many of those people had already been uprooted once by the fighting in Mogadishu.

The African Union (AU) has been desperately trying to strengthen a small peacekeeping mission of 3 500 troops from Uganda and Burundi. But despite pledges of extra battalions from those two nations and Nigeria, they have yet to deploy.

Somalia, a country torn apart

Islamist rule

  • In June 2006, an Islamist militia called the Somalia Islamic Courts Council seized Mogadishu after defeating US-backed warlords. Washington accused the Islamists of having links to al-Qaeda.
  • With tacit US approval, Somalia’s neighbour Ethiopia sent troops to defend the government against an Islamist attack on Baidoa in December 2006. The force advanced rapidly, taking Mogadishu and driving the Islamists to Somalia’s southern tip.

Interim government

  • Lawmakers had elected warlord Abdullahi Yusuf president and Ali Mohamed Gedi prime minister to run the 14th attempt at government since the fall of Barre.
  • Gedi resigned in Oct. 2007 and was succeeded by Nur Hassan Hussein as prime minister. Yusuf sacked Hussein in December 2008 and named former interior minister Mohamed Mohamud Guled as premier, snubbing a vote by Parliament to reinstate Hussein.
  • Yusuf resigned on December 29.

Bloodshed, hunger

  • Violence in Somalia has killed more than 16 000 people since the start of 2007 and uprooted one million. A third of the population rely on emergency food aid and the chaos has helped fuel kidnappings and piracy off the coast.
  • For months, the transitional government and African Union have pleaded with the United Nations to send a robust peacekeeping force that could take over from 3 500 AU troops, who say they are incapable of stabilising Somalia.
  • Peace deal in doubt
  • The government had initialled a peace deal in June 2008 with some opposition figures. The deal called for the rapid deployment of UN peacekeepers.
  • August 2008 talks in Djibouti were rejected by a hardline opposition faction and al-Shabaab militants suspected of being behind a wave of car bombings.
  • Piracy
    • A surge in piracy off Somalia and in the Gulf of Aden which connects Europe to Asia and the Middle East via the Suez Canal has brought the gangs millions of dollars in ransoms.
      • Nato ships began anti-piracy operations off the Somali coast in late October, but have failed to stop the hijackings. Several vessels are still being held by pirates, among them a Ukrainian cargo ship loaded with tanks and other heavy weapons. – Reuters