ADDIS ABABA, May 16 (Reuters) - Ethiopian troops will not leave conflict-torn Somalia until several thousand more African peacekeepers arrive to avoid a security vacuum, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said on Wednesday.
"It is a burden financially and otherwise that we would have preferred to do without," the Ethiopian leader told Reuters in an interview at his offices in Addis Ababa.
"But we recognise that if we were to withdraw in a precipitous manner, it would affect the security of Somalia negatively and also of the region. We will withdraw in a responsible manner, making sure there is no security vacuum."
That, Meles said, meant waiting for the African Union's (AU) delayed mission to reach about half its planned strength of 8,000 troops.
Only 1,600 Ugandans have gone to Mogadishu so far, with funding shortfalls, logistical problems, and nerves over insecurity preventing other African nations fulfilling pledges.
The AU says, however, that Burundi is on the verge of sending 1,700 soldiers, to be followed by Ghana and Nigeria.
Meles said he hoped and expected that would happen quickly. "Half or close to half (the 8,000) would be adequate," the precisely spoken former guerrilla leader said.
Meles said it was unhelpful to put a specific time limit on the presence of Ethiopian soldiers, whose numbers he gave as "more or less 4,000". They went in last year to help the interim government drive militant Islamists out of Mogadishu.
Money for his Somalia operation was being "squeezed" out of the defence budget, with "not a single cent" from abroad, Meles said. "We have had to bear this burden on our own. It cannot be sustained indefinitely."
Fatalities for Ethiopia were "quite a few, in the dozens", he said, in his government's first public estimate of casualties in Somalia this year.
Conditions for peacekeepers were more favourable now the worst of fighting in Mogadishu was over, Meles said, referring to two rounds of heavy battles this year between allied Ethiopian-Somali forces and Islamist-led insurgents.
"That is behind us now," he said. "There may be a few terrorist activities here and there in Mogadishu, but I don't think there is any organised military opposition in Mogadishu any more. That has been broken."
RIGHTS CRITICISM "BEWILDERING"
Briefly losing his relaxed demeanour, Meles lambasted media and the United Nations for reporting civilian casualty figures of between 1,000 and 2,000 in Mogadishu this year, and an exodus of nearly 400,000 refugees.
"I am deeply disheartened by the fact that the media and the U.N. agencies have been circulating lies without any attempt to verify the facts," he said.
Inflated civilian casualty figures came from a pro-Islamist rights group, Meles said.
"People tell me there might have been a handful, let us say maybe in the tens, 20, 30, but nothing more than that."
Those figures contrast starkly with eyewitness accounts.
But Meles said the vast majority of deaths, 1,000 or more in the two rounds of worst fighting, came from the Islamists' radical youth wing shabab.
The Ethiopian leader said up to 80,000 civilians had fled the two or three of Mogadishu's 16 districts where fighting was fiercest -- about a fifth of the U.N. estimate.
"One person high up the U.N. ladder even suggested the number of displaced people in Mogadishu was higher than that of Darfur. I do not think he knows what he is talking about."
U.N. calls for a human rights investigation into the Mogadishu fighting were hypocritical after judgements had already been made, he added.
Meles said that of 41 foreign suspects held in Ethiopia in the aftermath of the flight of the Islamists from Mogadishu at the New Year, 29 had been or were in the process of being released, while 12 would be kept in jail, probably for trial.
"It is as if it is a United Nations of Islamists," he said of the 12, declining to give their nationalities.
An American suspect, Amir Mohamed Meshal, was probably among those being freed, Meles said.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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