Somali insurgents advance after Ethiopians leave

Hard-line Islamist insurgents captured Somalia’s Parliament and fought government troops in a central town after Ethiopia withdrew its last soldiers and left a security vacuum in the Horn of Africa nation, witnesses said.

Just hours after the Ethiopian soldiers left, fighters from al-Shabaab — which is on Washington’s list of foreign terrorist groups — moved into Baidoa, capturing an old granary serving as the legislature, occupying the airport, and fighting their way towards the home of the country’s acting president, locals said.

While some analysts said the Ethiopian departure on Monday could take the sting out of the Islamist insurgency, al-Shabaab has vowed to carry on fighting and impose its strict version of Islamic law throughout the country.

”Government soldiers and local officials have been fleeing today [Monday]. I understand that al-Shabaab has now captured parts of the town and we do not see any government soldiers along the streets,” said Baidoa resident Halima Farah.

Later in the afternoon, however, local militia were fighting back fiercely, witnesses said.

With security deteriorating rapidly in Somalia, the country’s Parliament voted in neighbouring Djibouti to double its size and invite 200 members of the moderate Islamist opposition to join the expanded body.

International players, including the African Union and United Nations, are pushing for a new unity government as the only option for peace in the country of about 10-million.

”I am extremely encouraged by this vote and I would like to thank Somalia’s leaders, the parliamentarians and all those who have helped work towards such a positive step,” said Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, the UN’s envoy to Somalia.

The vote means that Somalia’s Parliament will accept 200 new members from the opposition Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia (ARS) and leave 75 seats to be filled by other opposition and civil society members later.

On the border
In Addis Ababa, Ethiopian officials confirmed the complete pull-out of their troops, but said they would maintain a heavy presence along the long border with Somalia.

The Ethiopians entered Somalia to chase a sharia courts movement out of Mogadishu at the end of 2006. The offensive sparked an Islamist-led rebellion, fighting that has killed at least 16 000 civilians and caused a humanitarian disaster.

Shortly after the Ethiopians left Baidoa overnight clan militia and local police looted the empty bases, with two people dying from shooting during the melee, witnesses said.

Insurgents then hurled a grenade at government soldiers near a bus stop, prompting return fire. At least three people were killed and eight others injured in that incident, locals said.

Somalia’s weak, Western-backed government had depended on the Ethiopians for military support, and is now exposed to an array of Islamist opposition groups. The Islamists have, however, been fighting among themselves in recent weeks.

Meeting hundreds of Somali politicians in Djibouti, Abdallah and other international players are pushing for the expanded Parliament to elect a new president this week.

The international community hopes a more inclusive Somali administration with new leadership will be able to reach out to armed groups still fighting the government and a small force of African Union peacekeepers.

Under the constitutional charter, a new Somali president should be chosen by Parliament within 30 days of the resignation of former President Abdullahi Yusuf, who quit on December 29.

Legislators are mulling whether to stick to that timeframe or vote for an extension — a move being stiffly resisted by international players in Djibouti.

Al-Shabaab and the more militant Islamist wing of the ARS, based in Eritrea, have so far refused to take part in the UN-hosted peace process. — Reuters

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