* Addis Ababa sent in tanks and troops in November
* AU said Ethiopia would pull out by end of April
* Kenya, Uganda, Burundi peacekeepers also fighting rebels
By Aaron Maasho
ADDIS ABABA, June 22 Ethiopia plans to keep its
troops in Somalia until the Horn of Africa country ratifies a
constitution and its military is able to fend off militant
threats on its own, an official said on Friday, signalling a
change in policy.
Addis Ababa rolled hundreds of troops across its border in
November to open up a third front against the al Qaeda-allied al
Shabaab group but was keen to point out their incursion is not a
repeat of their ill-fated 2006-2009 war in Somalia.
Ethiopian officials have said their troops would only be
deployed for a brief period to fight Islamist militants who are
also fighting thousands of Ugandan and Burundian troops under
the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), as well as Kenyan
forces to the south.
"It (Ethiopia) will remain (in Somalia) until the
Transitional Government (of Somalia) has adequately organised
itself to fend off any attack from hostile forces," government
spokesman Shimeles Kemal told reporters.
"There is no current plan to evacuate from Somalia until
such time that a proper Somali constitution is ratified by all
parties to the conflict, and until the constituent assembly will
ratify the constitution," Shimeles sa i d.
Last June Somalia's feuding leaders agreed to extend the
mandate of a transitional government for a year rather than hold
elections, a move sought by Uganda which has peacekeepers
stationed in the anarchic state.
The mandate for Somalia's latest administration was meant to
expire in August 2011 but President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, a
former Islamist rebel leader, and speaker Sharif Hassan Sheikh
Aden, who covets the top job, had been at loggerheads over what
should happen then, and agreed to defer elections.
Weakened by internal divisions and financial constraints,
the rebels have surrendered territory in Mogadishu and across
central and southern Somalia in the past few months.
Ethiopian forces captured the rebel stronghold of Baidoa in
southern Somalia in February having seized Baladwayne from the
militants on New Year's Eve.
In May, AU and Somali government troops secured an aid
corridor between Mogadishu and a former rebel stronghold close
to the capital, wresting control of a vital strip of land
believed to hold around 400,000 people displaced by conflict.
By the end of the month, Somali and Kenyan forces had
captured the rebel stronghold and strategic town of Afmadow,
though the militants claimed they retreated.
Seizing Afmadow was considered a crucial step in the Kenyan
drive towards the southern port city of Kismayu, the hub of al
Shabaab operations, about 120 km (75 miles) away.
In areas they have vacated, the militants have resorted to
guerrilla-style hit-and-run attacks, launching grenade attacks
and using suicide bombers.
The rebel group has waged a bloody five-year campaign to
topple Somalia's Western-backed government and impose its harsh
interpretation of Islamic law.
It continues to hold swathes of central and southern Somalia
but is being squeezed out of some areas by Kenyan and Ethiopian
Somalia has been mired in chaos since warlords toppled
dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991.
(Editing by George Obulutsa and Louise Ireland)