By Ibrahim Mohamed
MOGADISHU (Reuters) - Ethiopia has started pulling its troops out of Somalia, where they have been helping the Western-backed government fight an Islamist insurgency for the past two years, a senior official said on Friday.
A convoy of trucks loaded with Ethiopian soldiers, mattresses and other equipment left Somalia's capital Mogadishu earlier, witnesses said.
The departure of an estimated 3,000 Ethiopian troops risks leaving a potentially dangerous power vacuum in the anarchic Horn of Africa nation unless more African peacekeepers are sent quickly to beef up an existing force of 3,200 in Somalia.
"The withdrawal of our troops from Somalia has entered the implementation phase," Bereket Simon, special adviser to Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, told Reuters.
"The withdrawal is not an event that can be completed within a day. It will be finalised as quickly as possible."
The end of Ethiopia's presence in Somalia and this week's resignation of President Abdullahi Yusuf are seen by diplomats and analysts as an opportunity to forge an inclusive government which can work for peace.
But some Islamist insurgents have vowed to keep fighting the government even when its military allies leave, and a hardline opposition group seen as key to lasting peace is snubbing the idea of power-sharing and said Somalia risked a new civil war.
"We have seen Ethiopian troops moving to Afgoye from Mogadishu," said resident Omar Abdi Nur, referring to a town 30 km (19 miles) southwest of the capital.
"Their vehicles were carrying mainly equipment and soldiers. Nothing happened and they passed safely," he said, adding that the main road from the capital to Afgoye had been closed to other traffic this morning.
While there are frequent Ethiopian troop movements in and around the capital, residents said the soldiers did not usually move with items such as mattresses and cooking equipment. Other Ethiopian soldiers remained in Mogadishu.
"I have seen 28 Ethiopian vehicles entering Afgoye town, said Afgoye resident Husein Moalim. "Some soldiers were walking on high alert and others were on the vehicles."
Ethiopian troops in Mogadishu were targeted by a large explosion earlier on Friday on the road to the airport. Witnesses said two soldiers and a number of civilians died.
(Additional reporting by Tsegaye Tadesse in Addis Ababa; Editing by David Clarke)