Ethiopia's military commander in Somalia has handed over security of the country to a joint force composed of government troops and moderate Islamists. The landmark ceremony took place in the capital Mogadishu, following some of the worst insurgent violence there in recent weeks.
The ceremony at the presidential place marked the beginning of the end of Ethiopia's deeply unpopular military presence in Mogadishu for the past two years.
In his farewell speech, Ethiopian army Colonel Gabre Yohannes Abate said his troops are leaving because it is time for Somalia to stand on its own. Somali Prime Minister Nur Hassan Hussein hailed the withdrawal as an opportunity to bring much-needed peace to the country.
The Somali leader says the insurgents have no cause to fight anymore and all Somali people should embrace peace.
Ethiopia began withdrawing troops from bases in Mogadishu on Monday and Tuesday. It was the first significant pullout since Ethiopia announced early last month that its military would leave Somalia. But the troops are being withdrawn in phases and it is still not clear when all Ethiopian forces would be leaving.
An Ethiopian withdrawal was part of a U.N.-sponsored peace plan initially signed last June between the government and a moderate faction of the Islamist opposition group Alliance for the Re-liberation of Somalia.
But few Somalis had believed that the government in Addis Ababa would follow through. Witnesses say hundreds of residents gathered around empty military bases, singing and dancing in celebration.
Ethiopian troops entered Mogadishu in December, 2006 to replace Somalia's Islamic Courts Union with a weak, secular interim government. The military intervention sparked a war between Ethiopian and government forces and Islamist-led insurgents that killed about 16,000 civilians and displaced more than one million others.
Allegations of human rights abuses and war crimes against Ethiopian and government forces became a rallying-cry for Islamist insurgents to gain new recruits and intensify the conflict.
Western analysts have predicted that Ethiopia's departure from Somalia could drain support for the most powerful of the Islamist insurgent groups, the radical al-Qaida-linked al-Shabab, and allow secular and moderate Islamist leaders to form the country's first functioning government in 18 years.
But there have also been signs that al-Shabab and other groups, which had been united in opposing the Ethiopian occupation, are badly divided and could begin a violent struggle for power.
Listed as a terrorist organization by the United States, Al-Shabab, has refused to take part in peace negotiations and has vowed to continue fighting until it has united Somalia under strict Islamic law.
Late Monday, Shabab fighters shelled the presidential place while Somali interim Prime Minister Nur Hassan Hussein met with African Union peacekeepers. Government forces responded with artillery fire.
Artillery shells landed in Mogadishu's crowded Bakara market and a nearby residential area, where government troops believed the insurgents were hiding. Hospital workers say at least 10 civilians in the market were killed. Several people were killed in a separate attack in another part of the city.