MOGADISHU, SOMALIA — Ethiopian troops whose military strength was crucial to helping Somalia's transitional government drive out radical Islamic militias began withdrawing Tuesday, raising fear of a power vacuum unless peacekeepers arrive soon.
Somalian government spokesman Abdirahman Dinari said that Ethiopia had helped chase out the Islamic Courts Union, which had taken over the capital and much of southern Somalia, but that it was time for the neighboring forces to leave.
"As of today, the Ethiopian troops have started to withdraw from Somalia. We are grateful that they played an important role in the restoration of law and order in the country," Dinari said.
Ethiopia's government spokesman, Zemedkun Tekle, confirmed the pullout.
Ethiopia's intervention last month enabled a military advance that proved a stunning turnaround for Somalia's 2-year-old interim government. Without Ethiopia's tanks and fighter jets, the administration could barely assert control outside one southern town and could not enter the capital.
But the potential for violence in this Horn of Africa nation remains great because of clan rivalries, resentment of the government's Ethiopian backers and a threat of guerrilla war from remnants of the Islamist movement.
Nearly 200 people gathered at the former National University in Mogadishu, the capital, cheering the departure as the Ethiopians moved out on trucks and tanks.
The withdrawal gave a sense of urgency to a proposed African peacekeeping force. The African Union has approved a plan to send about 8,000 peacekeepers for a six-month mission that would eventually be taken over by the United Nations.