Ethiopian troops will stay in Somalia until African Union forces replace them to avoid creating a power vacuum that could see a resurgence of Islamist militants in the lawless Horn of Africa country, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said on Friday.
Addis Ababa sent troops into neighbouring Somalia in November as part of a wider campaign to crush al Shabaab rebels who control swathes of central and southern Somalia.
On New Year’s Eve, Ethiopian troops captured the Somali border town of Baladwayne from al Shabaab, whom Kenyan troops have been battling since last October.
Ethiopian officials, keen to point out their incursion is not a repeat of their ill-fated 2006-2009 war in Somalia, have stated troops would only be deployed for a brief period.
« We expect the AMISOM (African Union forces) troops to fill in the gaps before we withdraw and so at this stage there is no rush for us to withdraw before the AMISOM troops have come in, » Meles told journalists following a meeting of east African leaders in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa.
It was not immediately clear when African Union forces, until recently concentrated in the Somali capital Mogadishu, would arrive to central Somalia.
Ethiopian soldiers previously went into Somalia in 2006, and left in early 2009 after pushing the Islamist Islamic Courts Union out of the capital Mogadishu.
At the time, most Somalis opposed the intervention and analysts said it may have encouraged people to join al Shabaab.
Meles said his country was willing to expand beyond Baladwayne if Somalia’s government asked for backing.
« We will be happy to help in any area that the TFG (Somali government) wants us to help, » Meles said.
Separately, Ethiopian foreign minister Hailemariam Desalegn told Reuters his country may consider capturing the key south-central city of Baidoa, but did not give further details. (Reporting by Aaron Maasho and Yara Bayoumy; Editing by Yara Bayoumy)