Ethiopia says it is prepared to withdraw its troops from Somalia in line with an accord between the transitional Somali government and an Islamist opposition group. But as VOA's Peter Heinlein reports from Addis Ababa, the pullout pledge comes with conditions.
Government spokesman Wahde Belay says Ethiopia fully backs the agreement signed Sunday between Somalia's Transitional Federal Government and the opposition Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia. The U.N.-mediated accord calls for a phased pullout of Ethiopian troops from the Somali capital, Mogadishu, and the strategic town of Beledweyne beginning next month.
In a telephone interview, Wahde tells VOA the pace of the pullout will depend on the ability of African Union peacekeepers and government troops to fill the security gap left by Ethiopia's departure.
"The agreement says from next month Ethiopian troops will relocate from the cities of Beledweyne and Mogadishu and areas, and in order to avoid a security vacuum in the areas vacated by Ethiopian forces, the security forces of AMISOM and TFG and ARS will be deployed until the U.N. forces are deployed in Somalia. But we honor and we agree on the modalities worked out between the ARS and the TFG," Wahde said.
The accord calls for a ceasefire to go into effect November 5, and for Ethiopia's withdrawal to begin November 21.
Spokesman Wahde says the agreement reached in Djibouti could clear the way for Ethiopia to end its 22-month military incursion into a neighboring country that has been virtually ungovernable since the overthrow of President Mohamed Siad Barre 17 years ago.
But Wahde made clear Ethiopia's main condition remains: a guarantee that adequate force would be available to replace the departing troops.
"What has been agreed to by the two parties on the 26th of October will be accepted by Ethiopia," he said. "This is actually in line with what Ethiopia has been saying for some time. As long as no security vacuum is created in Somalia, Ethiopia is willing to withdraw."
Ethiopian and Somali diplomats say the agreement signed Sunday is flawed in several respects. It does not include some of Somalia's more extreme Islamist forces, such as Al-Shabab, a radical group at the heart of the insurgency. The al-Shabab group rejected an earlier ceasefire agreement reached in June and has said there will be no end to violence until Ethiopian troops have withdrawn.
Ethiopia maintains a force estimated at more than 10,000 in Somalia, which is seen by many as essential to the survival of Mogadishu's fragile transitional government. The African Union's AMISOM force has an authorized strength of 8,000, but currently has less than half that number of peacekeepers.
In a recent VOA interview, U.N. special envoy Ahmed Ould Abdallah expressed hope that progress toward peace in Somalia might prompt the U.N. Security Council to overcome its hesitation in forming a blue-helmeted peacekeeping force in the Horn of Africa nation.