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Ethiopia Rejects Somalia Withdrawal Timetable

Ethiopia's Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has rejected opposition calls for a timetable for withdrawing his country's troops from Somalia. As VOA's Peter Heinlein reports from Addis Ababa, Mr. Meles indicated there would be no change in Ethiopia's determination to keep troops in Somalia until a credible international force is ready to replace them.

Speaking in parliament Thursday, the Ethiopian leader expressed impatience with the international community's failure to respond adequately to the violence and lawlessness that has enveloped Somalia for the past 17 years.

He suggested it might soon be time to consider ending Ethiopia's nearly two-year military campaign to prop up Somalia's weak Transitional Federal Government.

The Ethiopian presence is viewed by many Somalis as an occupation force, prompting a violent backlash from extremist clan-based militias. But, Prime Minister Meles said withdrawal would be considered only when stability is assured.

"In the following months, the time for us to take a once and final decision is approaching," he said. "The time has come to take a final decision on the issue, in particular when our troops entered Somalia, those of us who felt our intervention was based on national security interests, then our withdrawal should also be responsible."

The prime minister brushed aside calls by leaders of some opposition factions for a troop withdrawal timetable.

"However, some have proposed something outside, stating that we should leave Somalia on this specific date, outside our strategic goal, interests," he said. "It would not be correct to state we would leave on Monday, Tuesday or Thursday."

Ethiopia is believed to have more than 10,000 soldiers in Somalia supporting the interim government. The African Union also maintains a peacekeeping force in and around the capital, Mogadishu. But only 3,000 Ugandan and Burundian troops are on the ground, out of an authorized eight thousand.

The U.N. Security Council has said it would only consider sending blue-helmeted peacekeepers after security conditions improve.

On another issue, Mr. Meles said he sees no early end to Ethiopia's longstanding boundary dispute with its northern neighbor Eritrea. With tensions high following the withdrawal of U.N. peacekeepers along the frontier, Mr. Meles expressed determination to maintain Ethiopia's troop presence indefinitely.

"If we don't find peace, the situation this is preparing [we are prepared], even for ten years. It will not affect us substantially," he said.

Ethiopia and Eritrea fought a two-year border war from 1998 to 2000 that killed an estimated 70,000 people. Both sides still have tens of thousands of troops massed along the frontier, at some places within eyesight of each other.

U.N. peacekeepers had maintained calm along the frontier for the past seven and a half years, but the Security Council shut down the mission in July, saying the countries had rejected options for a continued presence. The last of the U.N. troops are going home this week.