13 Jan 2009

Ethiopian troops quit bases in Mogadishu

9:53 pm on 13 January 2009

Ethiopian soldiers supporting Somalia's Western-backed interim government have quit their main bases in the capital Mogadishu, prompting celebrations among many residents, according to witnesses.

Hundreds of people gathered at dawn at one military facility in the north of the capital that had been abandoned overnight.

Ethiopian commanders could not immediately be reached for comment, but an Islamic opposition spokesman says he had been told on Tuesday that all Ethiopian soldiers would leave the city in the next day.

Islamic rebels have been battling the government and Ethiopian forces for the past two years since Addis Ababa sent soldiers to drive a sharia courts group from Mogadishu.

More than 16,000 civilians have been killed in the fighting, and a million more have been forced from their homes.

Pirates release carrier

Meanwhile, Somali pirates have freed a Korean-owned bulk carrier they hijacked three months ago.

The Panama-flagged, Japanese-operated African Sanderling was seized in October with its 21 Filipino crew members, all of whom are in good health. It was not clear if any ransom had been paid.

There has been a sharp rise in piracy off Somalia and in the busy Gulf of Aden. Last year, gunmen from Somalia hijacked dozens of ships and made millions of dollars in ransom payments.

The attacks have raised insurance costs, prompted some owners to sent their ships around South Africa instead of via the Suez Canal and triggered an unprecedented deployment by foreign navies.

On Friday, pirates released a Saudi Arabian supertanker, Sirius Star, after a $US3 million ransom was parachuted on to its deck. The vessel was carrying crude oil worth $US100 million.

The gunmen are still holding a Ukrainian ship loaded with 33 T-72 tanks, which was hijacked in September. They say they hope it will be freed soon and that they had cut their ransom demand from $US20 million to $US5 million.