Somali Islamists mull peace talks with government

By Mohamed Ali Bile and Guled Mohamed
MOGADISHU, July 26 (Reuters) - Islamist leaders met in Mogadishu on Wednesday to decide whether to return to talks with the fragile interim government that many see as the only hope for averting war in the Horn of Africa country.

The closed-door meeting in Mogadishu came a day after U.N. special envoy to Somalia, Francois Lonseny Fall, met both sides to try to secure their commitment to attend a second round of negotiations in Sudan next week.

"After a tete-a-tete with him (Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, a top Islamist leader), they left open the possibility for talks after they confer with the peace committee established by the Supreme Council," Fall told Reuters on Wednesday.

"I am hoping he will come to me with the good news that he will send back his team to Khartoum. The government is ready."

But the Islamists's most powerful leader, hardline cleric Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, has ruled out any meeting unless Ethiopia stops its "invasion" of neighbouring Somalia.

Islamist sources say the movement, which took Mogadishu from U.S.-backed warlords last month, is split between moderates pushing for talks and hardliners who believe they can win a military campaign against the fledgling administration.

The government told Fall it would return to Khartoum.

Anti-Islamist Ethiopia has repeatedly denied sending soldiers to defend the government, which is based in the small town of Baidoa because it is powerless to move to the capital.

However, U.N. envoy Fall said Ethiopian troops were indeed stationed in Baidoa, and another southern town, Wajid. But he but dismissed reports of 4,000-5,000 troops as exaggerated.


Diplomats fear that Ethiopia, and its old foe Eritrea, are using Somalia as a proxy battleground to antagonise each other.

There is little goodwill between the two neighbours who fought each other between 1998-2000 and dispute their border.

Traditionally Christian Ethiopia accuses Asmara of backing Somalia's Islamist "terrorists", which Addis Ababa fears could establish a hardline Taliban-style state on its doorstep.

"Fundamentalists have been using Somalia as a springboard for several types of terrorist activities and all sorts of bombings in Ethiopia," Bereket Simon, a close adviser to Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, said.

"And the involvement of the Eritrean government in Somalia's turmoil worries us."

In May, the United Nations accused Eritrea of funnelling arms to the Islamists during their rise -- a charge Asmara denies.

Washington urged neighbouring countries to stop meddling.

"The United States urges all of Somalia's neighbours to avoid any actions that might prevent Somali parties from continuing this dialogue," U.S. State Department spokesman Tom Casey said.

"However, neither the Islamic courts nor the Transitional Federal Institutions should use external actors as an excuse to avoid further discussions."

The United States has long feared Somalia could become a haven for al Qaeda-linked extremists.


Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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