ADDIS ABABA, Jan 25 – Ethiopia said Sunday it has completed the withdrawal of its troops from Somalia where they were deployed two years ago to help the Somali government fight an Islamist insurgency.
"The Ethiopian army has successfully completed its mission in Somalia and it has been fully withdrawn," said Communications Minister Bereket Simon.
"There is no armed presence in Somalia anymore. Our troops are fully in their own backyard at the moment," he said.
"It was a successful mission. The major task to get rid of the extremist threat was accomplished in a swift way. We believe that the forces of instability led by the Eritrean government have been dealt a heavy blow by Ethiopia."
Ethiopia had blamed Eritrea for supporting the Somali Islamists, while Eritrea accused its arch-foe of occupying a sovereign country.
Ethiopia sent troops to neighbouring Somalia in late 2006 to support the country’s fragile transitional government against Islamist insurgents who had won control of most of the country but were later ousted by the forces in early 2007.
Addis Ababa announced on January 2 that it had started the final withdrawal of its forces from war-torn Somalia.
The troops had faced relentless attacks by the Shebabs, the military youth wing of the vanquished Islamic Courts Union who remained in the country after the political leaders of the movement fled.
The Shebab and other militia have since regained control of much of the territory they lost to the Ethiopia-backed Somali forces, with the government only present in Mogadishu and the provincial town of Baidoa.
Residents of Baidoa, the seat of parliament, said they saw a convoy of Ethiopian army trucks driving out of the south-central town.
"I saw about 30 Ethiopian military vehicles outside Baidoa early this morning heading towards Dolo," said witness Abdiweli Yusuf, referring to a town on the Somalia-Ethiopia border.
State-run Ethiopian News Agency said the troops were given a "warm welcome" by residents of Dolo.
"The return of the defence force with mission accomplished is a source of pride," the agency quoted the town’s mayor Usman Abdulnaser as saying.
After the Ethiopian troops completely pulled out of Mogadishu earlier this month, fighters allied to moderate Islamist leader Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed took control of the abandoned bases.
Ahmed’s Islamist-dominated Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia (ARS) has signed a peace agreement with the government and is set to join parliament which is expected to be expanded at a meeting on Monday.
Part of the deal reached under the United Nations-mediated negotiatons being held in Djibouti included Ethiopian troop pullback, a ceasefire and the formation of joint security units to gradually take over until UN peacekeepers are deployed.
But the Ethiopia pull-out sparked security concerns for the war-ravaged country, where African Union peacekeepers have also come under attack by the insurgents and have been unable to stem the conflict.
On Saturday, at least 22 civilians were killed in a suicide car bomb aimed at the AU peacekeepers, but which missed its target and rammed into a bus, killing 17 people. Five others were killed in the ensuing gunfight.
The Horn of Africa country has lacked an effective central authority since the 1991 ouster of president Mohamed Siad Barre sparked internecine violence.