March 21, 2013, Mogadishu (AFP) – African Union forces battling Islamist insurgents in Somalia are preparing troops to take over should Ethiopia withdraw more soldiers from the region, their commander said Thursday.
“We have in place contingent measures to ensure that areas in Bay and Bakool…remain stable and secure in the event of further Ethiopian troop withdrawals,” said Andrew Gutti, commander of African Union Mission for Somalia (AMISOM), referring to southwest Somali regions currently controlled by Ethiopia.
Hours later, Somalia’s Al-Qaeda-linked Shebab swept into the town, their most important territorial victory for over a year.
The capture prompted jubilant celebrations, which included the beheading of an influential cleric in the town.
Despite a string of losses in recent months, the Shebab remain a potent threat, still controlling rural areas as well as carrying out guerrilla attacks in areas apparently under government control.
Security sources say the withdrawal from Hudur could signal a wider pullout of Ethiopian forces including from the key city of Baidoa, warning that if this happens, the 17 000-strong AMISOM would be hugely overstretched.
“We are conducting a review of our troop deployments…and remain confident that there will be sufficient coverage,” Gutti added.
Security sources say that AMISOM would struggle at its current capacity to take over Ethiopian positions, while Somali troops who have worked closely with Ethiopian troops might not necessarily cooperate so well with other forces.
So far, Hudur is the only major town Ethiopians have pulled out of, but troops are also packing kit in Baidoa in apparent preparation to leave.
While Kenyan troops have since joined AMISOM, Ethiopia remained separate.