Somali rebels pull out as Ethiopian troops return

Mon Nov 21, 2011 3:27pm GMT

By Mohamed Ahmed

MOGADISHU (Reuters) - Al Shabaab militants have begun pulling out of at least two rebel enclaves in central Somalia after neighbouring Ethiopia sent hundreds of troops across the border, residents said on Monday.

Addis Ababa denied on Sunday that its forces had entered yet Somalia, but local residents and elders said scores of Ethiopian vehicles ferrying troops and weapons moved at least 80 km (50 miles) into the Horn of Africa country over the weekend.

Local people in Beledweyne and Ceelbuur, both close to the Ethiopian frontier and under insurgent control, said the Islamist fighters had abandoned checkpoints where they used to extort taxes and left their battle stations.

"I saw a convoy of al Shabaab troops vacating the front lines," said a resident of Ceelbuur, who identified himself only as Ahmed. "I don't know where (the fighters) are headed, but they aren't in the town any longer."

An Ethiopian foreign ministry spokesman said a decision on whether to join the assault against al Shabaab in some form would be taken on Friday at a meeting of east African heads of state.

However, the residents said the Ethiopian military had already arrived, five weeks after Kenya launched an operation to crush the al Qaeda-linked militants.

The disappearance of al Shabaab fighters from zones close to where Ethiopian troops were stationed does not necessarily signify an all-out retreat.

MELTING AWAY?   Continued...

Al Shabaab's military spokesman Sheik Abdul Asis Abu Muscab issues a statement south of capital Mogadishu October 19, 2011.  REUTERS/Feisal Omar
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