Somali government confirms talks with Islamists

MOGADISHU  (AFP) — Somalia’s interim government on Tuesday yielded to UN pressure and confirmed that it would send a delegation to negotiate with the powerful Islamic group, ending confusion about its participation in peace talks.

But the Islamists, whose delegation is already in Khartoum waiting for the talks, said it would no longer deal with the east African, seven-nation Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), which mediated the peace talks that led to creation of the transitional government in 2004.

The government’s position was announced after the United Nations special representative for Somalia Francois Fall delivered a UN Security Council message to President Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed asking him to send a team to the Arab League-mediated peace talks.

“We will go to Khartoum without any preconditions,” the president’s chief of staff, Abdirizak Adam, said at the government’s temporary base in Baidoa, about 250 kilometres  northwest of the capital.

“We are in full concord,” with the UN recommendation to resume talks, he declared.

“There is no conditionality for the dialogue. We are always for dialogue,” he said, adding that the government’s only problem was with the Islamic courts’ behaviour in threatening to attack Baidoa.

“I encouraged the president to pursue dialogue with the courts,” Fall said before heading to Mogadishu to meet the Islamists.

A 15-strong delegation from the Supreme Islamic Council of Somalia (SICS) has been in Khartoum waiting for a second round of peace talks aimed at restoring a functioning government in Somalia, which the country has been without since warlords ousted dictator Mohammed Siad Barre in 1991.

On July 14, Yusuf ruled out talks with Islamists which control swathes of southern Somalia, including the capital Mogadishu, claiming they had broken an earlier agreement on mutual recognition and ceasing hostilities and planned to seize more territory.

Days later, Yusuf dropped the objection of participating in the talks, but several officials continued to give out mixed signals on the government’s willingness to participate in the peace parley.

Tension remains high since Ethiopia deployed troops to bolster the government’s weak defences amid fears that the Islamists planned to attack the government’s temporary base in Baidoa.

The Islamists have vowed to wage a holy war against the Ethiopian troops, but the government and the largely Ethiopian Christian regime have rejected the incursion claims, arguing that the SICS was looking for an excuse to wage war and expand its territory.

In Mogadishu, the SICS said it would no longer deal with IGAD —  which groups Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Sudan, Eritrea, Djibouti and nominally Somalia, —  because the bloc had failed the denounce incursion by Ethiopian troops.

“The Islamic courts will no longer deal with IGAD as a credible inistitution because it has failed to condemn Ethiopia’s illegal military intervention in our country. We will deal with individual countries, but not IGAD,” Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, the head of the executive committee of the SICS, said in a statement.

IGAD was tasked by the African Union to deploy peacekeepers to the failed state, but the plans have stalled amid fierce opposition from the Islamists, the presence of a UN arms embargo and lack of funds.

The rise of the Islamist alliance has caused concern in Washington, which says it fears a Taleban-style takeover of Somalia, where its leaders have started imposing Sharia law.

The United States, other Western countries and the United Nations have all backed the Arab League initiative to bring the Islamists and the government together in a bid to prevent them descending into conflict.

But the two sides are embroiled in longstanding disputes, notably over the possible deployment of foreign peacekeepers to help support the government, something Yusuf avidly backs and the Islamists vehemently oppose.

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