Ethiopian withdrawal attract hordes of Somalis into city

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According to locals in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, Ethiopian troops for the first time quit some of their bases, on 13 January. Muse Nur Amin, the Minister of the Interior and National Security in the Transitional Federal Government (TFG), confirmed that Ethiopian forces had begun leaving the capital.

“I can confirm that the forces have vacated some of their bases in the city,” he said. However, he could not say when the remaining bases would be vacated by the troops.”I am now standing in front of the Pasta factory in Huriwa [north Mogadishu] and there is not a single Ethiopian in sight. They are all gone,” said Ali, a Mogadishu resident at one of the abandoned bases.

A journalist confirmed that hundreds of displaced families, who fled the violence between the Ethiopian-backed government troops and insurgents, were coming to check on their homes in areas previously occupied by Ethiopian troops. According to him residents in the Somali capital “were more hopeful today than at any time since the ouster of the [Union of Islamic] Courts [December 2006].”

According to human rights groups, since the fighting began in earnest in early 2007, more than 16,000 civilians have been killed, over 30,000 injured and a million displaced. Insurgents, comprising Islamists, clan militias and nationalists, have been battling the Ethiopian troops and their Somali government allies since the end of 2006.

Talks under way

Suleiman Olad Roble, head of the information department for the Alliance for the Reliberation of Somalia (ARS), led by Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, also confirmed that Ethiopian troops had vacated four bases in different parts of the city. The group signed a peace deal with the interim government in November 2008, in Djibouti. “They have left four strategic bases and we expect them to leave the rest by the end of the day,” said Roble.

He dismissed suggestions of significant fighting between different insurgent groups. He said there may be “some minor clashes but nothing major. There are some differences between us but we can solve them. We are already talking and we will continue to talk to end our differences.”

Abdullahi Shirwa, a civil society activist, agreed. “The departure is a positive move and an opportunity for Somalis to reconcile and find common ground.” He said that many of those who stayed out of the peace talks would “likely join the talks now”. Giving credibility to Roble’s words, Shirwa said there could be some skirmishes but nothing serious. “There inevitably will be some skirmishes but I believe they can be contained and will be.”

Some reports have claimed that Somalis are divided on the possible outcome of Ethiopia’s withdrawal. While some fear that the withdrawal could lead to a power vacuum, others say it could pave the way for peace. Observers and Western diplomats say the withdrawal could reduce support for insistent Islamists and lead to moderates joining a government of national unity.

Civilians under fire

According to the journalist, any group that tried to engage in more fighting “will find very little support among the population. People are tired and the main reason they supported the insurgency is gone. There is no more excuse.” However, civilians continue to be caught in the crossfire, with at least 11 killed and more than 20 injured in Mogadishu on 12 January, when artillery shells hit a crowded market.

But Somali leaders, who met over the weekend at a meeting chaired by African Union’s Commissioner for Peace and Security Ramtane Lamamra, indicated that the security situation in the volatile capital, Mogadishu, was rapidly improving.

In central Somalia, about 146 people have been killed in fighting between two rival Islamist groups in the past three weeks, according to a human rights group.

The medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières said in a statement issued on 13 January that between 45,000 and 60,000 people were reported to have fled the town of Guri-Eil and the regional capital Dusamareb, in Galgadud region, the focus of the fighting.

Tom Quinn, who coordinates MSF programmes in Somalia, is quoted as saying that “Guri-Eil has become a ghost town, as has Dusamareb. We have gone from about 200 children a week to almost no children in our consultation wards, which is extremely worrying knowing how high the needs are. Tens of thousands of women, children and elderly have run away, and are now facing difficulties in accessing food, water and medical care.”

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