Ethiopia pulled its last soldiers out of Somalia yesterday after a more than two-year intervention to combat an Islamist movement in its Horn of Africa neighbor, officials on both sides said.
The departure of Addis Ababa's roughly 3,000 troops ushers in a new era for Somalia. Some predict the power vacuum will herald more bloodshed, while others say it gives the nation of 9 million people a chance for national reconciliation.
Islamist groups still hold sway over much of Somalia outside the capital, Mogadishu, and the seat of the transitional government, Baidoa, but the Ethiopians said it was mission accomplished as far as they were concerned.
“The Ethiopian army has successfully completed its mission in Somalia and it has been fully withdrawn,” Minister of Communications Bereket Simon said.
“It was a successful mission. The major task to get rid of the extremist threat was accomplished swiftly,” Bereket said. “We believe that the forces of instability led by the Eritrean government have been dealt a heavy blow by Ethiopia.”
Ethiopia accuses Eritrea of supporting the Somali Islamists, while the Eritreans had accused the Ethiopians of occupying Somalia.
Somali government spokesman Abdi Haji Gobdon said the remaining Ethiopian troops pulled out of Baidoa on Sunday night before heading further west toward the border.
“The Ethiopians have fulfilled their promise. Their last troops crossed the border this morning,” he said.
Clan militia and local police looted the empty Ethiopian bases in Baidoa, with two of them dying in the melee, witnesses said. “Militia and police fired as they fought over furniture, tents and other items,” police officer Ali Ibrahim said.
Ethiopian officials said they would keep a heavy presence along the long border with Somalia.
The Ethiopians entered Somalia to chase a shariah courts movement out of Mogadishu in 2006. That sparked an Islamist-led rebellion that has seen at least 16,000 civilians die and created a humanitarian disaster. The chaos has fueled a wave of piracy offshore.
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.
Meanwhile, in a meeting with hundreds of Somali politicians in Djibouti this week, the UN's envoy and other international players are pushing for a new administration to include the government and moderate Islamist factions.
The first steps in that, an expansion of parliament to include Islamists and then the election of a new president, were supposed to happen this week.
But Somali legislators, meeting in Djibouti because of insecurity at home, said yesterday they were likely to vote on a motion to allow more time for electing the new president.
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 Dec. 29.
Parliamentarians at the UN-hosted reconciliation process said they were looking for an extension of seven to 10 days.