Somali Islamists reject face-to-face talks with gov’t

KHARTOUM (Reuters) — Islamists challenging the authority of Somalia’s interim government said they would not proceed with a third round of peace talks on Monday unless Ethiopian troops were withdrawn from the chaotic country.

The Islamists met diplomats in the Sudanese capital, but said they would not hold face-to-face negotiations with government officials who had yet to arrive in Khartoum.

They also objected to neighbouring Kenya co-chairing the talks with the Arab League — discussions that have so far produced only a promise to recognise each other and make no military moves.

“Dialogue cannot continue while Ethiopia is invading Somalia and war can break out at any time right now,” Ibrahim Hussein Adow, head of the 16-man Islamist delegation, told Reuters.

“We are saying Ethiopian forces should be taken out of Somalia and Kenya should not be allowed to co-chair the meeting … We came here in good faith. If these obstacles are not removed, we do not see an environment for continuing dialogue.” The two sides had been due to meet early on Monday, but diplomats said there was confusion about who would lead the government delegation. Some named deputy prime minister and former foreign minister, Abdullahi Sheikh Ismail.

Adow accused the interim government of being “manipulated” by Ethiopia, which along with Kenya and Uganda, have backed a regional bid to send African peacekeepers in Somalia—which the Islamists vehemently oppose.

“[We] will not meet face-to-face,” he said of the government delegates. “We can talk to each other. We can say hello and have informal discussions, but the peace process won’t go forward unless solutions are found for these pressing matters.”

Ceasefire first

The rise of the Islamists, who control much of the south after seizing the capital Mogadishu in June, has isolated the Western-backed government and hampered its attempts to impose central rule on a country in chaos since 1991.

In September negotiations both sides agreed in principle to create joint military forces and reconvene for power-sharing talks on political and security issues.

But fearing the standoff could spark a regional war sucking in Ethiopia and Eritrea, analysts say a truce should take priority.

According to an Associated Press report over weekend, a confidential United Nations report said Eritrea and its archfoe Ethiopia had deployed thousands of soldiers in the Horn of Africa nation.

The report said the document estimated that 6,000 to 8,000 Ethiopian and 2,000 Eritrean troops were there, but diplomats and security experts say the Ethiopians number about 5,000, and few had solid information on the Eritrean presence.

UN spokesmen were not immediately available to comment.

Eritrea’s government denied sending troops to support the Islamists, and called the charge a US “fabrication to try to cover up the real objectives of the administration and its agent Ethiopia, which is waging war and destabilising [Somalia]”.

Addis Ababa denies any incursion, but says it has sent several hundred armed military trainers to support President Abdullahi Yusuf’s government.

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