Ethiopia announces Somalia withdrawal
Capital could be left vulnerable to militant attacks
MOGADISHU, Somalia - Ethiopia announced yesterday that it is pulling its forces from Somalia by year's end, which would leave the ravaged capital vulnerable to the Islamic militants who have seized nearly all of the country.
The decision ends the unpopular two-year presence of the key US ally much as it began - with the militants in near-total control of a failed state with a worsening humanitarian crisis.
Ethiopia has sent thousands of troops here since early 2007, when it launched a US-backed operation that drove the militants from Mogadishu after six months in power.
Since then, the Islamists have waged a ferocious insurgency, attacking UN-supported Somali government troops and their Ethiopian allies nearly every day.
The United States worries that Somalia could be a terrorist breeding ground, particularly since Osama bin Laden declared his support for the Islamists. It accuses a faction known as al-Shabab - "The Youth" - of harboring the Al Qaeda-linked terrorists who allegedly blew up the US Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.
Ethiopian forces have remained almost entirely in the capital, along with a small African Union force that has just 2,600 of the intended 8,000 troops and has largely been confined to urban bases.
The militants, meanwhile, have taken control of towns within miles of the capital and move freely inside Mogadishu.
Ethiopia and the Somali government have called without success for a United Nations peacekeeping force to help pacify the country and boost the weak government. The UN Security Council has said that it would consider sending peacekeepers to replace AU forces if Somalia can improve security and achieve political reconciliation.
Wahide Bellay, a spokesman for the Ethiopian Foreign Ministry, said Ethiopia would wait no longer. "Regardless of what happens, we have decided to withdraw our troops from Somalia at the end of year," Bellay said in a telephone interview from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
Dr. Ken Menkhaus, a Somalia scholar at Davidson College in North Carolina, called the Ethiopian withdrawal "inevitable" and said Somalia's Transitional Federal Government would be driven from the capital once its allies depart.
"There was never any serious prospect of a UN peace operation," Menkhaus said. "The TFG will not be able to maintain even a token presence in Mogadishu."
Calls to the Somali government were not returned.
A UN peacekeeping operation in the early 1990s saw the downing of two US Army helicopters and killing of 18 American soldiers. The United States withdrew and UN peacekeepers were gone by 1995.
The Pentagon sent a small number of Special Operations troops with the Ethiopian forces in 2006, and in early 2007 the United States conducted several airstrikes in an attempt to kill suspected Al Qaeda members.
The United States indicated yesterday that it will push for another UN peacekeeping force to be deployed to Somalia.
Somalia's transitional government was formed in 2004, but has failed to assert any control over the country. President Abdullahi Yusuf has acknowledged that it is close to collapse.