Somalia's weak and discredited transitional government was facing outright collapse last night after its main backer, Ethiopia, declared it would remove its troops by the end of the year.
In the two years since Ethiopia invaded its Muslim neighbour to crush a grassroots Islamist movement, the fractured government in Mogadishu has failed to exert any authority over the rest of the country. With casualties and costs mounting for the occupying force, in the face of a powerful Islamist backlash, Addis Ababa has decided to withdraw.
"Regardless of what happens, we have decided to withdraw our troops from Somalia at the end of the year," an Ethiopian foreign ministry spokes-man, Wahide Bellay, said yesterday.
Such a rapid departure would almost certainly be a death sentence for the UN-backed government which has so far earned the scorn of many in the country and been threatened with regional sanctions over its refusal to agree basic items, such as forming a cabinet within agreed timetables.
The move also puts immense pressure on the UN to reconsider appeals for a larger peacekeeping force. Somalia's President, Abdullahi Yusuf, has asked for a UN force to replace a small African Union deployment from Uganda that has been under siege at its base in the capital, Mogadishu. AU peacekeepers have struggled to have any impact on lawlessness, with only 2,600 of the mission's approved 8,000 troops deployed. Rashid Abdi, a Somalia analyst at the International Crisis Group thinktank, said Ethiopia may choose to seal the border with troops and air power. "They can ... continue to make military incursions across the border without troops on the ground who will be open to attack," he said.
Ethiopia remains Washington's main ally in the region and its 2006 occupation had Pentagon backing.