Page last updated at 00:46 GMT, Tuesday, 30 December 2008

New year heralds new Somali fears

Armed al-Shabab insurgents in Mogadishu

By Mohamed Olad Hassan
BBC News, Mogadishu

Many soldiers loyal to Somalia's recently resigned President Abdullahi Yusuf have been fleeing the capital.

"I sold my gun and left Mogadishu on Sunday after I realised President Yusuf was going to resign," said 28-year-old Farah Abdi.

He is heading back to Mr Yusuf's semi-autonomous region of Puntland in the north because as a government soldier, he said, he would be a target "if the insurgents take the town".

We will go back home once the Ethiopians leave, regardless of any security fears
Displaced mother

The fear of a power vacuum in the capital is now stronger than ever - not only because the president has resigned.

Ethiopian troops, which have been supporting Mr Yusuf's administration, are due to pull out in the next few days.

The transitional government and the Alliance for the Reliberation of Somalia (ARS), the moderate Islamist opposition which signed a power-sharing deal in Djibouti, say they will replace the Ethiopians and take responsibility for security.

"We are trying to take [on] our role of security," ARS leader Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed assured the capital's residents.

Abdullahi Yusuf arriving in Puntland and being greeted by soldiers
Soldiers loyal to Abdullahi Yusuf are also returning to Puntland

But with the army in disarray it means the only troops left in the city likely to offer any defence from attacks by Islamist insurgents of the al-Shabab group are those from the African Union.

Its force is made up of a small number of peacekeepers from Uganda and Burundi and it is trying to deploy new troops to the ground.

"We have no security fears, I am sure we need international support but that does not mean we can be deterred if the Ethiopians leave, we have been facing almost daily attacks," said AU spokesman Bridgie Bahuku in Mogadishu.

This upbeat reaction is shared by many residents of this war-ravaged city who have been have been looking forward to seeing the backs of the Ethiopians.

We fear fighting between the Islamists themselves and return of anarchy
Businessman Daud Haji Abdukhadir

"The withdrawal of the Ethiopians could be an opportunity for the patriots to work towards peace and stability," said Mogadishu resident Sahra Dahir.

"No Somali will justify carrying on fighting," she added.

Thousands of people who fled the city's violence and are now living in squalor on the outskirts of Mogadishu.

"We will go back home once the Ethiopians leave, regardless of any security fears which could come from the insurgents if they clash," said a 39-year-old mother of seven at the Elasha camp for displaced people.


However, some residents, like Faduma Ma'ow, feel the added political uncertainty means further challenges ahead.

"The withdrawal of the Ethiopian troops could cast Somalia into a deeper political abyss because there could be further jockeying for control," she said.

3m need food aid - a third of the population
1m displaced
Government only controls Baidoa
Islamist groups control much of southern Somalia
No effective government since 1991
Piracy on the rise

Such fears are more prevalent in central Somalia where Islamist militants are now fighting one another.

On Sunday and Monday, a powerful, newly militarised Islamist group declared a "holy war" against al-Shabab, the main Islamist group that has been calling for the Ethiopians to leave Somalia.

Since the Ethiopians intervened two years ago, al-Shabab has galvanised support and kept up attacks on government bases.

The group vows to keep on fighting until Sharia is restored in the country which has been riven by clan warfare for nearly two decades.

The Ahlu Sunna Waljamaca group killed more than 10 al-Shabab fighters and at least 30 civilians died.

It was the first face-to-face clash between Somali Islamists, who are, significantly, from different religious sects.

"We fear fighting between the Islamists themselves and return of anarchy because there is no other hope as the international community is reluctant to deploy peacekeepers," said Daud Haji Abdukhadir, a businessman in Mogadishu.

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