[dehai-news] (AFP): Somali peacekeepers want out: Ethiopian PM

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From: Berhane Habtemariam (Berhane.Habtemariam@gmx.de)
Date: Thu Dec 11 2008 - 10:32:37 EST

Somali peacekeepers want out: Ethiopian PM


ADDIS ABABA (AFP) - African Union peacekeepers want to withdraw from Somalia
as soon as possible, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said Thursday.

Meles told parliament in a surprise announcement that Uganda and Burundi,
the only contributors to the AU force, wanted to withdraw their embattled
peacekeepers ahead of Ethiopian troops, who are set to leave next month.

Uganda immediately issued a strong denial that it was withdrawing its
troops, while an AU official in Burundi said the country had only Wednesday
pledged to send another battalion to Somalia.

"They have already informed us that they would want to withdraw before we
do, and we are only waiting for ships and planes to arrive in Somalia in
order for them to pull out," Meles told lawmakers in Addis Ababa.

"At this time, we are looking into every aspect of our withdrawal. The main
issue now is to ensure that Ugandan and Burundese peacekeepers pull out safe
and sound."

Uganda's deputy foreign minister Okello Oryem said he was "surprised" by
Meles' statement. "This is absolutely not true and this is contrary to
everything we have said. Our position has always been that if Ethiopia pulls
out of Somalia, we will increase our presence there," Oryem told AFP.

"Uganda is prepared to increase its battalion if there is a need," he added.

Neither country had given any hint that it wanted to withdraw its troops
from the beleaguered AMISOM force, which numbers some 3,400. Withdrawal
would leave Somalia's weak transitional government at the mercy of a
resurgent Islamic rebellion.

Ethiopia announced last month it was ending its two-year intervention in
Somalia, where it sent some 3,000 troops in 2006 to prop up the government
and clear the threat of an Islamic insurgency from its own borders.

That announcement caused panic within the African Union, whose
under-equipped peacekeepers are meant to take over security duties but need
more time to prepare, and get up to full operational strength of 8,000.

Addis Ababa subsequently said it was prepared to delay its pullout "by a few
days" in order not to expose AU forces to an onslaught by the Shebab, the
Islamist insurgents who control large parts of Somalia and have been closing
in on Mogadishu in recent weeks.

A senior AU official told AFP after Meles' statement that "we know that the
Amisom soldiers have been worried since the announcement of the Ethiopian

"Our policy is to try to reinforce AMISOM, and to convince the contingents
already there to remain. We haven't yet been officially informed about this
wish to withdraw by the two countries," said the official on condition of

The AU has meanwhile been scrambling to avoid a "security vacuum" in
Somalia, and on Wednesday its chief Jean Ping called on the UN Security
Council to authorise the deployment of UN forces in Somalia.

At least nine AU peacekeepers have been killed in Somalia since they were
first deployed in March 2007.

Meles said in his speech to parliament on Thursday that "our decision will
never be reversed no matter what the international community says or does.

"Even if they (the peacekeepers) change their mind and stay, or even if the
international community fails to provide the necessary transport service, we
will do whatever means necessary to pull out without postponing.

"Similarly, the AU has also informed us that it would want its troops out
before our withdrawal if we were ever going to implement our decision. The
AU asked for security and support in order to ensure the safe passage of the
Ugandan and Burundese troops."

The insurgent Shebab, the former youth and military wing of the Islamic
Courts Union, has waged a bruising guerrilla war in the country, which has
been without a functioning government since 1991.


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