Fear and threats as Ethiopian troops quit Mogadishu
Few Somalis expressed hope for the future Wednesday after Ethiopian troops quit bases in Mogadishu and Islamist insurgents said they would launch more attacks, reported Reuters.
Some analysts say the withdrawal of an estimated 3,000 Ethiopian soldiers supporting the U.N.-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, spokesman 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 spokesman in Kismayu, a strategic southern port seized by the group in August, said he doubted Ethiopia would withdraw completely from its neighbor.
"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.
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.
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 U.N. 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.