Ethiopia has announced its intention to withdraw its troops from neighboring Somalia by the end of this year. But as correspondent Peter Heinlein reports from Addis Ababa, Ethiopian officials have assured the African Union their forces will remain on alert at the border to support the remaining AU peacekeepers if necessary.
Ethiopia has sent a letter to the United Nations and the African Union saying it will withdraw its forces from positions inside Somalia by the end of December. African and western diplomats confirmed to VOA the letter was delivered several days ago.
The pullout would come two years after Ethiopian troops invaded their lawless Horn of Africa neighbor to drive out Islamists who had imposed Sharia law on a large part of the country.
Since then, the Ethiopian contingent of between 10,000 and 15,000 troops has been the prime force propping up Somalia's fragile transitional government. They operate alongside a 3,400 strong AU peacekeeping unit known as AMISOM, made up of Ugandan and Burundian soldiers.
The letter to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and African Union Commission Chairman Jean Ping announcing the intent to withdraw was sent after Ethiopia's Foreign Minister Seyoum Mesfin publicly warned Somalia's feuding president and prime minister to patch up their differences or be left alone to fight among themselves.
Many African diplomats have openly expressed fears that an Ethiopian pullout could lead to an immediate collapse of the TFG, as the Somali government is known. But AU Commission Chairman Ping told reporters Wednesday he has received assurances from Ethiopia that they will not completely abandon Somalia, and will remain on the border, poised to return if conditions deteriorate.
"In spite of withdrawal of the Ethiopians, they will remain committed, just in the other side of the border, and they will intervene, and the African troops will remain there. The AMISOM will remain there and we'll continue to ask strengthening of AMISOM by asking new troops and also financial assistance," he said.
Ping said he is preparing for a number of possible scenarios to protect Somalia and the remaining peacekeepers when Ethiopia pulls out. But he expressed hope the Ethiopians could be persuaded to postpone their withdrawal if Somalia's leaders settle their internal dispute.
"This depends on the behavior of the Transitional Government of Somalia," Ping said. We hope they will understand they are there to help the country to help them and they should stop quarreling… So we hope that this will be the case and then we can continue this operation in Somalia."
Ping said negotiations are on to attract more African troops to bolster the AU force so it could shoulder the entire peacekeeping burden once Ethiopia withdraws. Kenya has already said it will soon dispatch a battalion to Somalia. Ping said he is also urging the U.N. Security Council to provide help, in view of the surge of piracy that threatens vital shipping lanes of the Somali coast.
"We already have a request to the Security Council. [There is] a need for them to come as quick as possible, because the disorder we are seeing on the ocean with piracy is an extension on the sea of the disorder that is going on on the mainland," he said.
African diplomats Thursday expressed hope that the current crisis could force governments in the region and the international community to take a fresh look at ways to prevent a turn for the worse in Somalia. The country has been without a functioning government for 18 years.
A combination of lawlessness and civil war has created one of the world's worst humanitarian disasters. The United Nations estimates 3.2 million people, about 40 percent of the population, are in need of emergency assistance.
While asking for anonymity, one senior diplomat from a country considering a troop contribution to AMISOM told VOA, "Ethiopia can't leave now. It's just too dangerous."