January 2, 2009 / 2:07 PM / 11 years ago

Laden Ethiopian convoy seen leaving Somali capital

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By Ibrahim Mohamed

MOGADISHU, Jan 2 (Reuters) - A convoy of trucks loaded with Ethiopian soldiers, mattresses and other equipment left Somalia’s capital Mogadishu on Friday, witnesses said.

Ethiopian soldiers have been propping up Somalia’s Western-backed government for the past two years but say they will withdraw in the next few days — potentially leaving a dangerous power vacuum in the Horn of Africa nation.

It was not immediately clear whether the troop movement was the start of a withdrawal, or a deployment of soldiers elsewhere in the country where they are fighting Islamist insurgents.

"We have seen Ethiopian troops moving to Afgoye from Mogadishu," said resident Omar Abdi Nur, referring to a town 30 km (19 miles) southwest of the capital.

"Their vehicles were carrying mainly equipment and soldiers. Nothing happened and they passed safely," he said, adding that the main road from the capital to Afgoye had been closed to other traffic this morning.

Ethiopian military officials in Mogadishu were not immediately available for comment.

The end of Ethiopia’s two-year presence in Somalia and this week’s resignation of President Abdullahi Yusuf are seen by diplomats and analysts as an opportunity to forge an inclusive government which can work for peace.

But some Islamist insurgents have vowed to keep fighting the government even when its military allies leave, and a hardline opposition group seen as key to lasting peace is snubbing the idea of power-sharing and said Somalia risked a new civil war.

While there are frequent Ethiopian troops movements in and around the capital, residents said the soldiers did not usually move with items such as mattresses and cooking equipment. Other Ethiopian soldiers remained in Mogadishu.

"I have seen 28 Ethiopian vehicles entering Afgoye town, said Afgoye resident Husein Moalim. "Some soldiers were walking on high alert and others were on the vehicles."

Ethiopian troops in Mogadishu were targeted by a large explosion earlier on Friday on the road to the airport. Witnesses said two soldiers and a number of civilians died.

There are an estimated 3,000 Ethiopian soldiers in Somalia and the international community has been scrambling to beef up a separate African Union force there of 3,200 troops, but the United Nations has ruled out any quick deployment.

African Union officials say some 2,500 soldiers from Uganda, Burundi and Nigeria are ready to deploy but financial and logistical obstacles have so far prevented them from effectively replacing those Ethiopian soldiers left. (Editing by David Clarke and Jon Boyle)

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