July 26, 2006

Somali Islamists mull peace talks with government

By Mohamed Ali Bile and Guled Mohamed

MOGADISHU (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 neighboring 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 antagonize each other.

There is little goodwill between the two neighbors 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 funneling
arms to the Islamists during their rise -- a charge Asmara

Washington urged neighboring countries to stop meddling.

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

"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.

(Additional reporting by Andrew Cawthorne in Nairobi)