MOGADISHU, SOMALIA — Ethiopia handed over security duties Tuesday to a Somali force, raising fears that the Horn of Africa country could collapse into chaos if an Islamic extremist group moves to seize power.
The Ethiopian pullout after a two-year deployment was widely welcomed by Somalis who had viewed the troops as an occupying force, but the Ethiopians also provided a measure of stability.
Few expect the Somali government will be able to ensure security, even with the help of an Islamic faction with which it has agreed to share power. The government, which has been without a president for weeks, controls only pockets of the capital, Mogadishu, and Baidoa, where parliament sits.
The Ethiopians were pulling out in stages, and it was unclear when all would be gone.
"It is time Somalia stands on its own feet," Ethiopian Col. Gabre Yohannes Abate said as he handed over security operations during a ceremony at the presidential palace in Mogadishu.
"The insurgents have been fighting for the withdrawal of Ethiopians all this time," Prime Minister Nur Hassan Hussein said during the transfer. "When the Ethiopians have begun withdrawing, there is no need for fighting again. I urge all Somalis to become peace-loving people."
An African Union peacekeeping force of about 2,600 remains in Somalia, where it is limited to guarding the seaport, the capital's main airport and government buildings, all in Mogadishu.
Somalia has not had a functioning government since warlords overthrew a dictator in 1991 and then turned on one another.
Its weak United Nations-backed government called in the Ethiopian troops in December 2006 to oust an umbrella Islamic group -- which included the Shabab extremists at the center of the current fighting -- that had controlled southern Somalia and the capital for six months.
The Islamists launched an insurgency that has killed thousands of civilians and prompted Somalia's president to resign in December, saying he had lost control.
The Ethiopians announced late last year that they would end their unpopular presence as demanded under an October power-sharing deal signed between the Somali government and a relatively moderate Islamic faction.
Shabab is not part of the agreement and has made large territorial gains in recent months. The U.S. State Department considers it a terrorist organization with links to Al Qaeda, which Shabab denies.
The group has said that Ethiopia's withdrawal would not stop it from fighting because the group's goal is to establish an Islamic state in Somalia.