Ethiopian troops pulled out from crucial bases in Mogadishu on Tuesday, leaving a power vacuum that was quickly filled by Islamist fighters who seized their positions.
It appeared to be the end of two years of bloody Ethiopian intervention in this chaotic nation. Hundreds of cheering Somalis lined the streets to watch the dozens of Ethiopian military trucks rumbling out of Mogadishu, Somalia’s bullet-pocked capital.
While hundreds of Ethiopian troops still remained at various bases across the city, Ethiopian commanders promised that all troops would leave the country by Tuesday night.
“I am happy they finally left our neighborhood,” said Fadumo Mohammed Jimale, an 18-year-old whose family had been displaced by intense urban street fighting. “They killed my father.”
The Ethiopian troops stormed into Somalia in 2006 to oust an Islamist movement that briefly controlled much of the country and to help shore up Somalia’s weak transitional government.
It did not go as intended. The Ethiopian intervention set off a bitter guerrilla war, killing thousands of civilians and driving nearly 1 million people out of Mogadishu.
Many Mogadishu neighborhoods are now like ghost towns, while the transitional government’s zone of control has shrunk to a few city blocks in the capital and in Baidoa, a market town where the parliament meets. And Somalia’s Islamist movement has made a steady comeback, with Islamist factions again controlling much of the country.
The Ethiopian troops lost hundreds of soldiers in Somalia, and on Tuesday an Ethiopian commander bid the country farewell.
“We came to Somalia to help the transitional federal government,” said the commander, Col. Gabre Yohannes. “We paid blood and property for that reason. That effort meant that the young generation of Somalis will get peace.”
Many Western diplomats and other Somalia analysts have warned that once all the Ethiopians are gone, the various Islamist factions will unleash their considerable firepower on one another in a scramble to take over the country. Some of that fighting has already kicked off, with dozens of people killed in the past week in combat between moderate and radical Islamist factions. On Tuesday, gunmen from one Islamist faction rushed into an old pasta factory in central Mogadishu that the Ethiopians had been using as a base. The Islamists were quick to take credit for the Ethiopian withdrawal.
“We drove the Ethiopians out by means of muscle and bullet,” announced Sheik Yusuf Mohammed Siyad, an Islamist leader. “Today, we got the victory we were expecting. We will restore order in this neighborhood.”
Many Somalis suspect the Ethiopians may stay in the rural parts of Somalia or near the border for some time. Beyond that, there are still more than 3,000 African Union troops in Mogadishu, many hunkered down at the airport and presidential palace. Their job is to protect the transitional government.