[dehai-news] (Reuters) Somali Islamists strike at departing Ethiopians

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From: Biniam Tekle (biniamt@dehai.org)
Date: Wed Jan 14 2009 - 09:32:21 EST

Somali Islamists strike at departing Ethiopians Wed Jan 14, 2009 8:11am EST

By Abdi Sheikh and Abdi Guled

MOGADISHU (Reuters) - Islamist insurgents fired mortars at Mogadishu's
presidential palace and ambushed departing Ethiopian soldiers on Wednesday,
underlining fears of more bloodshed in Somalia after Addis Ababa's pullout.

Witnesses said security forces including African Union (AU) peacekeepers
guarding the hill-top palace compound in the coastal capital responded with
their own volleys of artillery shells, shaking the city for several hours.

Then suspected militants from the al Shabaab group ambushed an Ethiopian
convoy, taking departing soldiers, on a street not far from the palace. The
Ethiopians fought back with a tank.

Some analysts say the ongoing withdrawal of some 3,000 Ethiopian soldiers
will leave a vacuum, triggering more violence by rebels who have battled the
U.N.-backed administration for two years, and are now increasingly fighting
each other.

Others hope the Ethiopian exit could be positive, removing forces seen by
many locals as occupiers and spurring more moderate Islamist factions to
participate in forming a new, inclusive government.

After vacating four bases on Tuesday, the Ethiopians left two more on
Wednesday, one at a football stadium.

"The Ethiopians have deserted the stadium and many residents have come to
watch," witness Abdullahi Hassan told Reuters.

"We see only chairs and their footprints."

The Ethiopians have eight other bases in Mogadishu and face a 500km journey
through Somalia to the border on departure.

Somalis are pessimistic about a return to peace in a nation that has
suffered 18 years of incessant civil conflict.

"No Somali wants the Ethiopians to stay, but there will be chaos whether
they withdraw or not," said a spokesman of Ahlu Sunna Waljamaca, a
government-allied Sunni Islamist group.

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.

Speaking in Cairo after talks with Arab League officials, moderate Islamist
leader Sheikh Sharif Ahmed said the hardline, Eritrea-based opposition group
was expected to join talks soon.

"A breakthrough on those issues was achieved. There is a promise that they
(the Asmara faction) will be included in the peace process," he was quoted
telling Somali radio HornAfrik.

Fighting has killed more than 16,000 civilians since the start of 2007,
after Addis Ababa sent military forces to help the government drive an
Islamist movement out of the capital.

One million people have been forced from their homes, triggering one of
Africa's worst humanitarian disasters.

On Tuesday, Ethiopia, which is frustrated by rifts in the Somali
administration and the cost of its operation, began dismantling its main
bases in Mogadishu.

Many civilians, though, are too scared to return to homes.

"Those who have concrete houses can go back, but there's no hope for
families with houses made of iron sheets like us," said Asha Farah, a mother
of four, in a refugee camp beyond the city.

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

Pitched battles between two 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.

After the resignation of former president Abdullahi Yusuf, a new president
is supposed to be elected by January 26.

(Additional reporting by Reuters team in Somalia; writing by Daniel Wallis
and Andrew Cawthorne; editing by Philippa Fletcher)

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