MOGADISHU, Somalia – Ethiopian troops who helped Somalia's government drive out a radical Islamic militia began withdrawing from this Horn of Africa nation on Tuesday, a Somali government spokesman said.
"As of today, the Ethiopian troops have started to withdraw from Somalia. We are grateful that they played an important role in the restoration of law and order in the country," Abdirahman Dinari said. "They are pulling out gradually from all the regions they had entered, including the capital."
Somali troops, with crucial aid from neighboring Ethiopia, drove the Council of Islamic Courts out of the capital and much of southern Somalia in an offensive that began late last month. But many Somalis resent the presence of Ethiopian forces. Somalia, a Muslim country, and Ethiopia, which has a large Christian population, fought a brutal war in 1977.
Nearly 200 people gathered Tuesday at the former National University, cheering as the Ethiopians moved out on military trucks and tanks. "Leave us alone and let us solve our problems," the crowd chanted to the withdrawing troops.
Many fear an Ethiopian withdrawal will leave a power vacuum and even lead to a return to the anarchy and warlord rule of the past. On Friday, the African Union Peace and Security Council approved a plan to send about 8,000 African peacekeepers, including nine infantry battalions, to Somalia for a six-month mission that would eventually be taken over by the U.N. The council said the initial deployment should have at least three battalions.
Malawi's defense minister said Monday that the southern African country would contribute a full or half-battalion to a Somali peacekeeping mission, depending on other countries' contributions. Uganda's ruling party approved the deployment of 1,500 troops — almost two battalions — but parliament must approve the plan.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has been anxious to withdraw his forces, saying its soldiers cannot be peacekeepers and it cannot afford for them to stay.
The withdrawal comes one day after it became known that a top leader of the ousted Islamic movement, apparently afraid for his life now that the once-powerful militia has been chased into hiding, surrendered to authorities and is in custody in neighboring Kenya.
Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, considered a moderate member of the Council of Islamic Courts, went to a Kenyan police station along the Somali border Sunday and was flown to Nairobi, according to a police report seen by The Associated Press. A U.S. diplomat said last week that Ahmed could play a role in reconciling Somali factions.
If Ahmed agrees to hold talks with Somalia's government, it could be a major step toward preventing the widespread insurgency that many Islamic leaders have promised in Somalia. He is not believed to be wanted by the authorities, as other members of the Islamic group are.
The United States said Monday it was not involved in protecting Ahmed, whose whereabouts in Nairobi were not known. In Somalia, the remnants of the Islamic courts are being hunted by Ethiopian troops and Somali government forces.
"The U.S. government is not holding or interrogating Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed and was not involved in his capture or surrender," a U.S. Embassy official said, reading from a prepared statement.
U.S. Ambassador Michael Ranneberger has said Ahmed is a moderate Islamic leader the U.S. believes should be part of a national reconciliation process in Somalia. Ahmed was the chairman of the Executive Council of Islamic Courts and shared the leadership with Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys, who was chairman of the court's legislative council.
Aweys is on a U.S. list of people with suspected ties to Al Qaeda, though he has repeatedly denied having ties to international terrorists.