By Kumerra Gemechu
BAIDOA, Somalia (Reuters) - After three years of killings and violence under the rule of al Shabaab rebels, residents of the Somali city of Baidoa said they were happy to see the arrival of Ethiopian soldiers, whose presence they once resented.
Under al Shabaab's control, Baidoa's leaders say the city's people became poorer, conditions worsened and many were forced to flee. The return of Ethiopian troops, once seen as Christian invaders in a Muslim country, was a welcome relief.
Ethiopian and Somali troops seized the city from al Shabaab insurgents last month, in a major blow to the militants battling Somalia's weak interim government.
Somalia has been in turmoil since warlords toppled dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991. Fighting has killed more than 21,000 people since al Shabaab launched its insurgency in 2007.
"Al Shabaab colonized us for three years and 12 days. Many of us were killed, many of us were displaced and many have migrated. So we are the survivors," Mohammed Ma'alim Barhi, a clan leader, told reporters in the city 250 km northwest of Mogadishu.
"They (Ethiopian troops) have entered here three times before. Now we like them, we support them and we are with them."
Al Shabaab, which announced in February that it was merging with al Qaeda, imposed a harsh interpretation of Islamic sharia law. In areas under its control, music, movies and soccer were banned and people were beheaded or had limbs amputated as punishments.
"Before, there was a strong propaganda against the Ethiopians but these three years there are many things the people saw. There was over-taxation, they are killing people," Abdifatah Mohamed Gesey, governor for Bay region, said of the insurgents.
"After we arrived here we held discussions with the elders, business people and the women's associations. They have asked us to liberate nearby towns just as we liberated Baidoa."
Gesey, who fled after al Shabaab took over the region, said people were now returning to the city to reopen businesses.
'ALMOST GAME OVER'
Ethiopian and Somali troops said they were welcomed by residents who volunteered to show them where al Shabaab fighters were hiding, and found abandoned ordnance everywhere, from government offices to mosques, police stations to main roads.
"The enemy forces were disoriented and disintegrated. They were incapable," said General Yohannes Gebre-Giorgis, Commander of the Ethiopian Forces in Somalia.
"The people have now deserted them. So there is no way they can survive here. It is almost game over for al Shabaab."
Baidoa residents said their most immediate priority was meeting basic needs like food. "We need international help. Our people are very angry. Our people are hungry and we don't have medicine," Barhi said.
Baidoa Palace, a bullet-riddled building once the main seat of Somalia's interim government until 2009, is now a command center for Ethiopian troops. Its windows have been shattered by gunfire and graffiti scrawled on its walls. The rest of the town is dotted with abandoned houses and destroyed shops.
Ethiopia's military presence in Somalia between late 2006 and early 2009, when it routed another Islamist administration from power, provoked massive resentment among Somalis and galvanized support for the militant Islamists.
Ethiopia sent troops across the border again in November to open up a third front against the militants, who are also fighting 9,000 Ugandan and Burundian troops under the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and Kenyan forces.
Last week, the U.N. Security Council voted to expand AMISOM, which supports the shaky Western-backed government, to nearly 18,000 soldiers, and will include Kenyan troops.
African political and military leaders will meet in Ethiopia next week to iron out the details of how the expanded force will operate, Kenyan army colonel Cyrus Oguna told reporters in Nairobi.
(Additional reporting and writing by George Obulutsa; Editing by Karolina Tagaris)