Somalia's Al-Qaeda linked insurgents, on the back foot after months
of losses, are eyeing a potential withdrawal of arch-foe Ethiopia in the
volatile southwest, raising security and humanitarian concerns.
Tuesday, March 19, 2013
Heavily armed Shebab fighters swept into the town of Hudur, capital
of Bakool region, just hours after Ethiopia's surprise withdrawal from
the town on Sunday.
Hot on the heels of the Ethiopians -- the strongest military power in
the southwest region ever since their November 2011 invasion -- fled
allied Somali militia forces and a column of some 2,000 terrified
Security sources say the withdrawal from Hudur could signal a wider
pull out of Ethiopian forces including from the key city of Baidoa,
warning that if this happens, the 17,000-strong African Union mission (AMISOM) would be hugely overstretched.
"Everything suggests Ethiopia is determined to withdraw from Baidoa" in coming days, a security source told AFP.
Ethiopia, which has repeatedly said it wishes to withdraw, is
reportedly frustrated that its requests for AMISOM troops to take over
its positions have been ignored.
"The Ethiopians have been talking for quite a while of how much they
want to leave...so far it was seen more as a posture," said a source
close to AMISOM, adding they were frustrated at how much the military
operation was costing.
Whether Ethiopia continues to withdraw also depends on the reaction
of the international community and whether the Shebab reoccupy the areas
they pull out from, the source added.
The withdrawal from Hudur "is a reminder that what they do is of
strategic importance and that the Shebab is not defeated," the source
Relations between Addis Ababa and the Somali government are also
tense, with a parliamentary delegation travelling to Baidoa on Sunday in
a bid to persuade Ethiopia not to leave, a humanitarian source there
Addis Ababa -- long seen as a traditional enemy of Somalia -- is a
controversial presence in Somalia. Ethiopia entered Somalia in a 2006
US-backed invasion, but was driven out three years later by a bitter
-- Major boost to Shebab morale ---
But while Shebab forces are weak and unable to hold out against the
heavy weaponry of Ethiopia or AMISOM troops, Hudur's capture marked a
sharp turnaround and a major boost to their morale.
Sources say that while their return to Hudur was expected, the speed with which they retook the town took many by surprise.
"If Al-Shebab reoccupy all the places Ethiopia withdraws from, it
would change things," the AMISOM source said, adding that Hudur's rapid
capture "clearly shows that holding ground is not enough to win over an
AMISOM would struggle at its current capacity to take over Ethiopian
positions, while Somali troops who worked closely with Ethiopian troops
would not necessarily cooperate so well with other forces, sources said.
Hudur's capture, the Shebab's most important territorial victory for
over a year, prompted jubilant celebrations amongst the Islamists, who
vowed to "wage jihad" until total victory in messages posted on its
Top Shebab military commander Mukhtar Robow led the celebrations in the town.
So far, Hudur is the only major town Ethiopians have pulled out of,
but with troops packing kit in Baidoa in apparent preparation to leave,
many are worried as to the impact of a retreat.
Security sources say several thousand Ethiopian troops have dominated
southwestern Somalia since their 2011 assault on Shebab bases in
November 2011, shortly after Kenyan forces invaded Somalia from the far south.
Kenyan troops have since joined AMISOM. Ethiopian forces have remained separate, although they collaborate with the mission.
While AMISOM already have a significant force in Baidoa,
reinforcements are battling to open up the final 50 kilometre (30 mile)
stretch of road connecting the city with Mogadishu, some 250 kilometres
(155 miles) to the southeast.
But given the large amount of Ethiopia's heavy equipment and weaponry
based in Baidoa, troops would be unlikely to be able to stage a rapid
pullout as they did in Hudur.
"The behaviour of the Ethiopians is ambiguous," another security
source said, asking whether they were "really leaving or pretending?"