A spokesman says Ethiopian troops will complete their withdrawal from Somalia "within days," and that sufficient precautions have been made to prevent a feared power vacuum when they are gone. Troop convoys have been seen pulling back to positions across the border in Ethiopia's Somali region.
Ethiopia's Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying military commanders have completed handing over their responsibilities in Somalia to African Union peacekeepers and soldiers of the country's transitional government. Ministry spokesman Wahde Belay told VOA in a telephone interview all precautions have been taken to provide security for the AMISOM and TFG forces.
"We believe there will not be a vacuum. That is why we consulted with those forces, the AMISOM and TFG forces," he said. "We made sure that we have not left a vacuum there. They are ready to take their responsibility in assuring calm in Somalia. This is all I can say for now."
Wahde declined to elaborate on what measures have been taken, but the press statement noted that both Uganda and Burundi, the two troop contributors to AMISOM, had confirmed their willingness to boost the size of their forces. AMISOM currently has a strength of about 3,400 troops but they are ill-equipped and under-funded and have been unable to restore much stability in Somalia.
The TFG is also believed to have several thousand soldiers.
African Union officials are known to be actively trying to solicit more troops contributions.
Spokesman Wahde confirms that the Ethiopian withdrawal is well under way, and should be completed soon.
"We have specifically said it will take a few days in order to complete the withdrawal. I don't want to comment on what will happen next," he said.
Ethiopia had earlier said it would provide security for the AMISOM forces if they decided to join the pullout, but African Union officials have indicated they will continue their peacekeeping mission. African Union Commission Chairman Jean Ping last month told reporters, "a withdrawal from Somalia is something we cannot accept, not only the AU but also the rest of the world."
Several western diplomats, who declined to be identified because they are not authorized to speak publicly, have expressed fear of a bloodbath unless the peacekeeping forces are substantially reinforced to replace the several thousand departing Ethiopian soldiers.
Reports from Somalia over the past few days have spoken of clashes between rival Islamist factions vying for control as Ethiopian convoys head back across the border. Both western and African analysts have voiced concern that extremist forces might overrun the AMISOM and TFG troops and capture the capital, Mogadishu.
Ethiopia sent troops to Somalia in December, 2006 to drive out an Islamic Courts Union that had imposed Sharia law over parts of the country. The Ethiopians installed a U.N.-backed but feeble transitional government, but were not able to provide stability in the lawless country that has been without an effective administration since 1991.