Ethiopia handed over security duties Tuesday to a Somali force, raising fears that the Horn of Africa country — already fighting an Islamic insurgency and rampant piracy — could collapse into chaos if extremists with alleged al-Qaida links move to seize power.
The Ethiopian pullout after a two-year deployment was widely welcomed by Somalis who had viewed the troops as an occupying force, but the Ethiopians also have provided a measure of stability in a land plagued by extreme poverty and relentless warfare.
Few expect the Somali government can ensure security even with the help of the Islamist faction with which it has agreed to share power. The government controls only pockets of the capital, Mogadishu, and Baidoa, where parliament sits — and has tried to rule without a president for weeks.
It was unclear when all the thousands of Ethiopians will have departed. They were pulling out in stages and gave no exact dates for security reasons.
"It is time Somalia stands on its own feet," said Ethiopian commander Col. Gabre Yohannes Abate, as he handed over security operations during a ceremony at the presidential palace in Mogadishu. "So we are saying goodbye to all Somalis and their dignitaries."
Fears of power vacuum
Fears of a power vacuum have been balanced by the hope that the Ethiopian withdrawal will soothe festering hatreds: The foreign troops have been a rallying cry for the insurgents to gain recruits even as the militants' strict form of Islam has terrified people into submission.
"The insurgents have been fighting for the withdrawal of Ethiopians all this time," Prime Minister Nur Hassan Hussein said during the handover. "When the Ethiopians have begun withdrawing, there is no need for fighting again. I urge all Somalis to become peace-loving people."
Somalia has not had a functioning government since warlords overthrew a dictator in 1991 and then turned on each other. Its weak U.N.-backed government called in the Ethiopian troops in December 2006 to oust an umbrella Islamic group — which included the al-Shabab extremists at the center of the current fighting — that had controlled southern Somalia and the capital for six months.
The Islamists launched an insurgency that has killed thousands of civilians and prompted Somalia's president to resign in December, saying he had lost control of the country.
The lawlessness also has allowed piracy to flourish off Somalia's coast. Last year, pirates seeking multimillion-dollar ransoms attacked 111 ships in the Gulf of Aden and seized 42 of them.
The Ethiopians announced late last year they would end their unpopular presence as demanded under an October power-sharing deal signed between the Somali government and a relatively moderate faction of the Islamists.
Al-Shabab, is not part of the agreement and has made dramatic territorial gains in recent months. The U.S. State Department considers it a terrorist organization with links to al-Qaida — a claim al-Shabab denies.
Terrorists seek Islamic state
Despite Hussein's plea for peace, al-Shabab has said in recent days that Ethiopia's withdrawal would not stop it from fighting because the group's goal is to establish an Islamic state in Somalia.
The Ethiopian army, one of Africa's largest, was viewed by many Somalis as abusive and heavy-handed. Ethiopia long said it wanted to pull out after stabilizing Somalia, but opponents said Ethiopia — a mainly Orthodox Christian country — was interested in preventing an Islamist regime in neighboring Somalia.
The two countries have been rivals for decades, and fought in the late 1970s over a southeastern region of Ethiopia populated principally by people of Somali origin.
Fadumo Wehliye, who lost three of her eight children during the violence, described the Ethiopian pullout as "great" and said she now would go back to home in Mogadishu.
"For the last two years ... I have been living in a makeshift house in the outskirts of the capital," she said. Now "I will return to my home."
The Islamist groups, once unified, have split since gaining more territory last year. They have begun fighting one another for control of several towns, with the government-allied Islamists claiming to be in charge of some of them.
Last year, Somalia's transitional government agreed to share power with a faction of the Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia, a relatively moderate group that split from al-Shabab.
Hussein Siyad Qorgab, deputy chairman of the alliance faction, urged all to "come together and make a unity government."
The U.N. envoy to Somalia praised the Ethiopians for honoring of a withdrawal commitment made with the power-sharing deal signed last year in Djibouti.
"The ball is now in the court of the Somalis, particularly those who said they were only fighting against the Ethiopian forces, to stop the senseless killings and violence," Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah said in a statement issued Tuesday in neighboring Kenya.