Below are some questions and answers on the intractable Somali conflict:
* An Islamist insurgency spearheaded by the al Shabaab ('Youth' in Arabic) militia has been fighting the Somali government and its Ethiopian military allies since being chased out of Mogadishu at the end of 2006.
* Ethiopia, determined to contain the Islamists, has thousands of troops in Somalia protecting the weak local government and pursuing the rebels. Addis Ababa is unhappy at the cost of its military operation and the criticism of its intervention and would like to withdraw.
* The African Union (AU) has about 3,000 peacekeepers in Somalia, fewer than its 8,000 target, and a larger force is seen as a prerequisite for Ethiopia's exit.
* President Abdullahi Yusuf leads Somalia's government but is at odds with his prime minister, Nur Hassan Hussein. International backers are furious at the split. The government's mandate runs out in August 2009.
* The United Nations, mindful of its disastrous intervention in Somalia in the early 1990s, is resisting calls to take over from the AU until the security situation improves.
* Ethiopia's neighbour and foe Eritrea hosts some of Somalia's hardline Islamist leaders and is accused of channelling support to fighters on the ground.
* Diplomats view the United States as using Ethiopia as its proxy in Somalia. Washington says Shabaab is al Qaeda's agent in Somalia and fears a spread of extremism in the Horn of Africa.
WHAT HOPES FOR PEACE?
* Many a peace process has come and gone since warlords toppled dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991 and ushered in the modern era of chaos and anarchy in Somalia.
* U.N. envoy Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah is leading the latest peace drive. He has persuaded the government and moderate members of the umbrella opposition Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia (ARS) to sign a ceasefire and agree in principle to form a power-sharing administration.
* The hardline faction of the ARS has rejected that, and insurgents have stepped up their attacks every time the peace process has made some progress. They now control most of south Somalia, except the capital Mogadishu, the seat of parliament Baidoa and the garrison town Beladwayne.
* Diplomats and analysts see the U.N. peace process as the best hope, but are privately sceptical it will work, given disunity among Somali leaders and the strength of the rebels.
* Western and regional backers of the government, known as the Transitional Federal Government, are unhappy with its lack of progress but may be prepared to endorse an extension of its mandate beyond 2009 if the peace process progresses.
COULD THE INSURGENTS WIN?
* Some analysts believe the insurgents may now be strong enough to overrun Mogadishu and Baidoa, where they often carry out assassinations and plant roadside bombs. But they are not a homogenous group and may be hampered by internal divisions.
* Should the Ethiopians leave, as foreseen under the U.N. plan, the insurgents would have a better chance of seizing power again if they stay united. A Somalia security force is being built up, but the insurgents are seen as far stronger.
* Some analysts say the insurgents are content with the current chaos that has made Somalia something of an "African Iraq." Ethiopian and AU troops are bogged down, and foreign militants are attracted to Somalia as another perceived front in a global struggle.
WHAT IS AT STAKE FOR SOMALIA AND THE REGION?
* The conflict, on the northeast shoulder of Africa and close to the Middle East, has destabilised the whole region. Militants have entered Somalia, the United States has carried out air strikes there, Kenya is on high alert, and the Ethiopia-Eritrea feud persists.
* The chaos has fuelled piracy in the busy Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean sealanes off Somalia. Dozens of ships have been seized this year, eight are still being held. Insurance costs are soaring, some shippers are considering using the Cape of Good Hope instead of the Suez Canal, and various countries are sending naval patrols to the area.
* Somalis are suffering dreadfully as violence compounds the misery caused by drought and soaring food prices in a country that was already one of the world's poorest. About one million Somalis are internal refugees. Aid workers, hampered by attacks on them, say it is one of the world's worst crises.
(Writing by Andrew Cawthorne, editing by Tim Pearce)
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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