Somali peace agreement welcomed

NAIROBI, Jun 23, 2006 (Xinhua via COMTEX) -- The international community has welcomed the agreement between the Somalia's transitional federal government and the Islamic group that controls strategic towns in the lawless nation.
Somalia's Mogadishu residents, interim government officials, United States and the United Nations have lauded the peace deal struck after a day-long meeting in Khartoum on Thursday.

Somali government spokesman Abdirahman Dinari said the seven- point peace deal was in the right direction, which he hoped, would help return normalcy in the anarchic nation.

"We welcome the outcome of the meeting and view it as an important step towards ending the 15 years of anarchy in our country," Dinari said by telephone in Nairobi on Friday.

"We wish to thank the Islamic courts for their commitment and desire to engage with the government. On our part we wish to assure them of our commitment too," Dinari added.

During the meeting in Khartoum, the transitional federal government and the Islamic agreed to recognize each other and stop fighting.

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said it was a "positive development" and urged both sides to continue to talk.

In a statement, Annan urged "the two parties to remain engaged in dialogue to promote peace and national reconciliation" and commended the Arab League for its mediation.

Analysts say building trust will be a major challenge after a flurry of accusations and counter-accusations between the two sides following the Islamists' victory in Mogadishu.

Sudan President Omar al-Bashir described the accord as "the beginning of the end of conflicts in Somalia."

"There is need to put an end to the conflict and instability in Somalia in order to foil any plans for foreign interference in the affairs of a member of the Arab League," said al-Bashir.

Somali President Abdulrahi Yusuf said: "We have no interest in shedding any blood, and we will seek every possible way to preserve the life of the Somalis."

"This is your chance to end the suffering and start developing. Take my advice, and be aware: war leads nowhere," Yusuf cautioned.

Tensions rose between the government and the Islamists after the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) seized Mogadishu on June 5 and then advanced to seize a strategic swathe of southern Somalia.

The parties are to resume talks aimed at resolving outstanding security disputes on July 15 in Khartoum.

The United States, which has been accused of bankrolling the Mogadishu-based warlords who have been driven out of the capital early this month, also welcomed the accord.

"We believe that this is a positive first step in what will be a long process to bring security and stability to Somalia," U.S. State Department's deputy spokesman Adam Ereli said.

"This is a step that we welcome."

The peace talks, which were organized by the Arab League, came amid international concern over the political goals of the Union of Islamic Courts, a coalition that drove reportedly U.S.-backed warlords out of power and raised fears that they would establish an outpost of extremist Islam in the strategic Horn of Africa.

"I do hope that the talks would be successful. It's the first step and clear indication of an understanding of the need of all elements in Somali societies to come together for a permanent future for their country," said U.S. top diplomat for Africa Jendayi Frazer.

The Somali government has infuriated the Islamists by calling for international peacekeepers and saying Muslim fundamentalists from around the world helped them secure Mogadishu.

However, the seven-point agreement signed in Khartoum on Thursday makes no mention of the question of whether foreign peacekeepers are needed, which has sharply divided the two sides.

President Yusuf wants peacekeepers but the Union of Islamic Courts is strongly opposed, especially to any involvement of troops from Ethiopia, which is seen as being close to Yusuf.

According to regional analysts, another issue not addressed is whether the Islamists will join the interim government.

The Islamic courts leader has said the movement does not want to establish its own government and has dispelled fears that Islamist courts could provide a safe haven for terrorists.

"There's no extremism in Somalia and no terrorist element in Somalia. Anyone who wanted to check this, he can come and see with his own eyes," said leader of the Islamist Courts Union delegation Mohamed Ali Ibrahim.

There have been fears of conflict between the Islamic courts, which control much of southern Somalia, and the interim government, based in Baidoa, 200 kilometers north of the capital, Mogadishu.

These fears increased last weekend after the Islamists said Ethiopian troops had crossed the border, apparently in support of Yusuf's government.

The United States, worried that Somalia could develop into a Taliban-like state, is widely believed to have bankrolled an alliance of secular warlords opposing the Islamists.

The Islamic courts militia has seized control of much of southern Somalia, including the capital, since early June when they drove out a group of faction leaders who had controlled Mogadishu since 1991 when the administration of Muhammad Siad Barre was toppled.