Fighting breaches Mogadishu ceasefire, peace talks teeter

Mogadishu (dpa) - Heavy fighting between rival militia groups broke a lengthy ceasefire in the Somali capital Mogadishu on Thursday, while peace talks teetered on the brink of collapse.

Hospital officials said at least six people died and 40 were injured in the fighting in the Meddina district of Mogadishu between militia loyal to warlord Muse Sudi Yalahow and his rival, Omar Filish.

Most of the victims were civilians, some wounded when their houses collapsed amid the heavy machine-gun fire employed by the warring sides, said Abdi Ibrahim Ahmed, a doctor at Meddina hospital.

The fighting subsided Thursday afternoon but the militiamen remained in defensive positons and civilians were fleeing their homes, according to witnesses.

Mogadishu's warlords signed an agreement last October during peace talks in neighbouring Kenya to stop fighting. The ceasefire has largely held until now although the armed factions maintained a significant presence in the city.

But the talks on ending the 12-year-long war in Somalia and creating a national government were in jeopardy Thursday after more than four months of little progress.

Several Somali factions, including the Transitional National Government (TNG) were threatening to walk out on the talks over what they described as interference by Ethiopia.

Ethiopia is co-sponsoring the peace talks along with Somalia's other neighbours Kenya and Djibouti but has been accused over the past decade of arming certain warlords in a bid to keep Somalia in anarchy. Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi admitted this week that his troops have in the past invaded Somali territory.

"Ethiopian activities at the conference are motivated and driven by its sinister designs for Somalia,'' said the transitional government in a statement earlier this week.

The statement said Ethiopia is "working tirelessly to marginalise or undermine the TNG and some factions, while favouring others.''

The Juba Valley Alliance and warlord Muse Sudi Yalahow have already left the conference over the alleged Ethiopian interference and the "G8'' group of faction leaders were also threatening to do so.

The TNG is also refusing to stay at the conference venue on the outskirts of Nairobi because its delegates are displeased with the facilities.

Civil society delegates to the talks pleaded during a news conference in Nairobi on Thursday that the negotiations continue.

"Although the conference needs some structural rearrangement, the civil society of Somalia, representing the large masses of the country, believes that no alternative could be found for the reinstatement of peace and normal governance to Somalia,'' said Sharif Salah Mohamed Ali.

Somalia erupted into civil war in 1991, with the overthrow of dictator Siad Barre and a subsequent battle for control over its territory among clan-based factions.

Relatively stable administrations have been established in the northwest and northeast, but no single group controls the economically important south. The transitional government has been unable to exert its authority beyond a portion of Mogadishu since being inaugurated in September 2000.

The current peace talks - the 14th set since Barre's government collapsed - were initially praised for attracting wider participation than any since the early days of the war.

But little has been accomplished beyond the Mogadishu ceasefire and an agreement on a framework for ending the crisis since October, when the talks opened in the Kenyan town of Eldoret.

The talks were slowed down by procedural wrangles and refusals by factions to limit the number of delegates, which swelled to over 1000 before the organizers fixed a ceiling. Some would-be delegates had to be forcibly evicted from their hotel rooms last month.

Amid complaints by hotels and transport outfits that their bills were not paid, the talks were relocated to Nairobi and mediator Elijah Mwangale was forced to step down, to be replaced by Bethel Kiplagat, former ambassador for Kenya.

Funding for the peace talks is coming from foreign donors, primarily the European Union and Germany.

dpa mc ow sc AP-NY-02-27-03 0921EST


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