Somali militants Al Shabaab are becoming increasingly emboldened following the systematic withdrawal of Ethiopian troops, a development that is threatening to reverse the recent gains in the war against terror.
The Al Shabaab have not only retaken nine towns in the central region along the border with Ethiopia, but have also threatened to disrupt the presidential election scheduled for November 30.
In the wake of the ongoing domestic political uprising in Ethiopia over the past one month, Addis has been withdrawing troops that are not part of the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom), but who have been instrumental in containing Al Shabaab in the central region.
Amisom spokesperson Col Joseph Kibet, told The EastAfrican that the Ethiopian withdrawal is leaving a vacuum that is encouraging the re-emergence of Al Shabaab in areas where they were previously contained.
He said that locals who were previously lying low are emerging to identify themselves as Al Shabaab and hoisting their flags because a lot of the elements in the militant group are locals.
"The Ethiopian withdrawal is having as serious negative impact in the fight against Al Shabaab; the militants have retaken towns that are critical in the operations against Shabaab and are likely to stretch Amisom troops. This means that Al Shabaab will be emboldened because they now have more room to operate and hide," said Col Kibet.
He, however, maintained that it is a small setback as Amisom is going back to the drawing board ato formulate new strategies to recapture the towns.
The towns recaptured are scattered in Gedo, Bakool, Bayi and Hiraan along the Somalia-Ethiopia border. They are Rab Dhuure, Bur Dhuxelne, Garas Weyne and Tayeeglow (Bakool region), Budbud and Galcad (Galgaduud region) and Moqokori, Ceel Cali and Halgan in Hiraan region.
The Ethiopian authorities have explained that the troops they are withdrawing are those that had been deployed before the country joined Amisom as part of a bilateral security arrangement with Somalia.
Ethiopian information and communication minister, Getachew Reda, explained that the withdrawal is due to financial constraints the country has to bear by maintaining troops in Somalia while the international community has failed to train and give support to the Somalia National Army, which is supposed to take over liberated areas.
Despite withdrawing from Somalia in 2008 after unilaterally entering Mogadishu in 2006 with the support of the US, Ethiopia has always maintained thousands of troops inside the country as a buffer against the flow of militants into its eastern region of Ogaden. However, the recent ethnic flare-up in Oromiya and Amhara regions that saw authorities in Addis Ababa impose a six month state of emergency, has forced Ethiopia to beef up security at home.
Col Kibet maintains that the recent trends are not worrying Amisom because they do not represent a major military setback; in some instances such as Qandala town in Puntland, the militants withdrew only after realising that they were likely to face serious counter attacks.
In the past five years, Al Shabaab has progressively lost ground in major cities and towns. from 2011 when they were driven from Mogadishu. However, Al Shabaab remains strong in most of the rural areas in central and southern Somalia since Amisom is facing the challenge of inadequate number and equipment, as well as the inability of the Somalia National Army to take full charge of the liberated areas.