Occupying soldiers withdraw from capital

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Hundreds of Ethiopian soldiers have started pulling out of the Somali capital Mogadishu amid fears the troops' departure will allow Islamic insurgents to take even more control of the lawless country.

Ethiopia has been propping up Somalia's weak government for two years, but vowed to leave by the end of 2008.

Officials declined to give an exact date because of fears of a power vacuum, saying only that the thousands of troops would be pulled out in stages.

It was not immediately clear how many were leaving, but residents said they saw hundreds on the move.

Ethiopia has not said how many soldiers are in Somalia, but most are in the capital, Mogadishu.

"This is the first time we saw Ethiopian soldiers moving out of Mogadishu in such numbers," resident Dahabo Awnure said.

The Ethiopians were called on in 2006 to prop up the UN-backed government and rout Islamic militants who had taken over most of the country.

Initially, the superior firepower worked - the Islamists were driven from power. But they quickly regrouped and launched an Iraq-style insurgency that continues today.

Earlier this week, Abdullahi Yusuf resigned as president, saying he had lost control of the country to Islamic insurgents and could no longer fulfil his duties after four years in office.

Many Somalis have seen the Ethiopians as occupiers, and the insurgents have used their presence as a rallying cry to gain recruits - even as the militants' strict form of Islam terrified people into submission.

Mogadishu resident Salado Abdi Salan said the departing troops "looked happy, and some of them waved to the children as they passed".

For two decades, Somalia has been beset by anarchy, violence and an insurgency that has killed thousands of civilians and sent hundreds of thousands fleeing.

The most powerful insurgent group, al Shabab, has taken control of vast amounts of new territory in recent months.

Washington accuses al Shabab of harbouring the al Qaida-linked terrorists who blew up the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.