Ethiopia's Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has declared "mission accomplished" in Somalia, and told parliament Ethiopian troops will be home from their controversial two-year military mission within weeks. Mr. Meles also pledged Ethiopia would guarantee the safety of African Union peacekeepers in Somalia, should they choose to withdraw.
The Ethiopian leader admitted it has been impossible to crush the Islamist extremist al-Shabab forces and establish a stable government in the two years since he dispatched troops to neighboring Somalia. But he said that was not Ethiopia's objective.
That, he said, is the job of the United Nations, which gave legitimacy to Somalia's Transitional Federal Government; the African Union, which initially pledged to send 8,000 peacekeepers that he thought would quickly replace Ethiopian soldiers; and the international community.
But in answering questions in parliament, Mr. Meles said he was bringing the troops home confident they had accomplished the twin missions of preventing the establishment of a militant Islamic regime, and giving the international community time to intervene.
"Our main mission was to defuse the plan orchestrated by Eritrea, accompanied by al-Shabab, and anti-peace elements in Ethiopia, he said. "We have defused it in a way that it cannot come again. That is, if we feel there are signs it is coming back again, we can take action. We did that in the first two weeks. Our second mission was to give the international community and Somali peace forces time to accomplish their mission of bringing lasting peace to Somalia. We consider two years enough time. So we have accomplished both our missions. Unfortunately, it has not been possible to bring lasting peace to Somalia."
Urgent efforts are underway to bolster the 3,400-member AU force known as AMISOM, and possibly transform it into a U.N. peacekeeping mission. If that fails, however, and the international community abandons Somalia, Mr. Meles said he has assured Burundi and Uganda, the two AMISOM troop contributors, that Ethiopia will guarantee safe departure of the peacekeepers.
"When we intervened in Somalia, there were forces that stood by our side," he saidi. "So when we think of withdrawing from Somalia, we also think about how those countries will withdraw their troops. When we withdraw, the Burundi and Uganda forces have told us that if we withdraw, they might like to withdraw. They have told us they would need our assistance to withdraw form Somalia. They say it would be better if we escort them first, then we withdraw."
AU Peace and Security Commissioner Ramtane Lamamra is in New York for talks with U.N. secretary-general and Security Council ambassadors about ways of preventing a collapse of Somalia's transitional government after Ethiopia leaves.
African Union diplomats in Addis Ababa said the international community is showing a heightened awareness of the severity of Somalia's crisis. The U.N. Security Council is said to be preparing a ministerial-level meeting on Somalia next week. The African Union Peace and Security Council will hold a similar session the following week.
Even so, diplomats said it would take months to replace the several-thousand Ethiopian troops who are going home, much less to bring the AMISOM force up to its authorized strength of 8,000, or to transform it to a more robust U.N. peacekeeping mission.
In what are seen as significant political developments, the leader of the opposition Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia returned to Mogadishu this week after a two-year absence, and the transitional government's parliament is assembling for a meeting Saturday aimed at affirming a power-sharing deal.