NAIROBI, KENYA — The resignation of Somalia's embattled president Monday should clear the path for a new unity government, officials and diplomats said.
Abdullahi Yusuf, a former warlord who had served as president of a transitional government since 2004, submitted his resignation to parliament and immediately returned to his native Puntland region in northern Somalia.
In a speech to lawmakers before leaving, the combative leader acknowledged that he had failed to restore peace, but blamed the international community for what he called a lack of support. "I urge all of you to unite," he said.
Yusuf, 74, had been facing pressure to step down after losing a power struggle with Prime Minister Nur Hassan Hussein, who is pushing a reconciliation plan that would bring a moderate Islamist opposition faction into government.
"The resignation is a bold step that moves Somalia toward peace and democracy," Hussein said.
It came as Ethiopian troops, which had been supporting and protecting Yusuf for two years, were preparing to withdraw as soon as Wednesday. Their imminent departure has raised fears that insurgents will use the security vacuum to seize the few regions of southern Somalia that they don't already control.
In accordance with Somalia's transitional charter, Yusuf's day-to-day duties will be temporarily assumed by Sheik Aden Madobe, also a former warlord and onetime ally of the president.
Madobe split with Yusuf several months ago.
Parliament is supposed to elect a new president within 30 days, but some lawmakers said they probably would wait until a new parliament is formed under the terms of the pending reconciliation deal. Lawmakers hope to convene an expanded legislature, including a large opposition faction, by February.
"It's a positive step that Yusuf has moved on," said a U.S. official who was not authorized to speak publicly about the situation and so requested anonymity. "But now we are focused on succession plans. We'd like to see that done in 30 days."
About 125 people, including Yusuf's family, security officers and about 30 lawmakers, left Mogadishu, the capital, Sunday night in a show of support for the president, an employee at the city's airport said. Some experts fear that Yusuf's departure may cause a new north-south rift in the government. But one of the departing lawmakers said he and others were leaving because of security concerns about what will happen once the Ethiopian troops leave.
In recent weeks, rival Islamist militias have jockeyed for position, including waging a battle over the weekend for control of cities north of Mogadishu. Insurgents already control parts of the capital and are poised to take over the remaining areas after the Ethiopians leave.
In the port city of Marka, insurgent infighting appears to have led gunmen to storm World Food Program offices Sunday, temporarily interrupting the U.N. agency's food distribution.
According to United Nations estimates, nearly half of Somalia's population requires humanitarian aid.
The Horn of Africa nation has been divided by civil strife and clan warfare since the fall of Mohamed Siad Barre's government in 1991.
In 2006, the south was unified under an Islamist-controlled regime that the U.S. accused of having links to terrorism.
Ethiopian troops toppled the so-called Islamic Courts Union in late 2006 and installed in Mogadishu the U.N.-recognized transitional government, which had been based in the city of Baidoa. Islamist fighters moved underground to create an insurgency that continues to attack the government.
Special correspondent Lutfi Sheriff Mohammed in Mogadishu contributed to this report.