Somalia has begun repatriating troops it said it sent for training in neighboring Eritrea, which led to protests in several Somali cities over accusations that they had been recruited under false pretenses and held captive.
The soldiers were sent to Eritrea during former president Mohamed Abdullahi Farmaajo’s administration.
After coming to power in May, President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud’s government said that 5,000 missing soldiers had been “found” in Eritrea and would be brought home soon.
Several of their family members said the men had been recruited by Somalia’s federal government for jobs in Qatar, but that they then surfaced in Eritrea where they were forced to serve in the military.
Eritrea is often described by critics as “the North Korea of Africa” for its use of forced labour, repression and surveillance of its citizens.
The apparent secretive recruitment of young Somali men stirred public anger and triggered protests in the capital Mogadishu and elsewhere.
The Somali and Eritrean governments denied the men were held against their will.
Somali Defence minister Abdulqadir Mohamed Nur has said that a first batch of troops – he did not specify how many – from Eritrea had arrived in Somalia on Wednesday.
“They will participate in the war on al Shabaab,” he said, referring to an al Qaeda-affiliated militant group seeking to impose its strict interpretation of Islamic law across Somalia.
Little is known about what the Somali troops did while in Eritrea.
A U.N. report last year cited reports that some of them were sent to fight in a war in neighbouring Ethiopia’s Tigray region.
Somali authorities denied that the soldiers fought in Ethiopia.
Somali government has vowed to intensify operations against al-Shabaab fighters and liberate towns and villages under the group’s control in southern and central Somalia.
Somali military supported by locals has engaged in deadly clashes with al-Shabaab fighters in Hiiraan and Galgadud regions in the last two weeks.
The army liberated a number of villages in Hiiraan region following fierce fighting with the group’s fighters.