MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP) – A powerful insurgent group poised to take over Somalia said Wednesday it will fight until the country is ruled by Islamic law, even as Ethiopian troops who have been propping up the government packed up to leave.
The presence of the Ethiopian troops, whom many Somalis see as occupiers in their land, has been a rallying cry for the insurgents to gain recruits even as the militants’ strict form of Islam terrified people into submission. But on Wednesday, the most powerful insurgent group said the departure after two years will not be enough to stop them fighting the government.
“We will not stop fighting even if the Ethiopian troops withdraw because our aim is to implement Islamic law across Somalia,” said Sheik Muktar Robow, leader of the most aggressive Islamic insurgency group, al-Shabab.
The Ethiopian troops were packing up to leave Wednesday amid fears their departure will allow the strengthening Islamic insurgency to take over. But it was unclear when the thousands of soldiers would actually depart. They are expected to leave in stages, not all at once.
Ethiopia originally said it would end its unpopular presence here by the end of December, but officials have since declined to give an exact date because of fears of a power vacuum.
Somali military officials and soldiers said the Ethiopians were awaiting word on when to go. “They have stopped dealing with us, all they could tell us was that they were getting ready for a final departure from Somalia,” Somali soldier Fuad Muhumed Afey said of the Ethiopian troops. Witnesses said many soldiers were packing mattresses, personal belongings and loading trucks with military supplies.
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 from mortar shells, machine-gun crossfire and grenades.
A local human rights group said more than 15,000 people have been killed in Somalia in the past two years. The figure is impossible to independently confirm. The group, Elman Human Rights, says it relies on hospital and witness accounts.
Somalia’s former president, Abdullahi Yusuf, who resigned this week, called in Ethiopia for help two years ago to rout Islamic militants who had taken over most of the country. Ethiopia’s superior firepower worked, the Islamists were driven from power, however briefly, but an Iraq-style insurgency soon began.
Al-Shabab has taken control of vast amounts of new territory in recent months. Washington accuses al-Shabab of harboring the al-Qaida-linked terrorists who blew up the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.
Many of the insurgency’s senior figures are Islamic radicals; some are on the U.S. State Department’s list of wanted terrorists.
Yusuf’s resignation could usher in more chaos as Islamic militants scramble and even fight among themselves for power. The government controls only pockets of Mogadishu, the capital, and Baidoa, the seat of Parliament.