Somalia: Islamists refuse talks, acknowledge Eritrea

Somalia’s Islamists said on Tuesday they would not attend peace talks with the interim government until Ethiopian troops left their soil, and for the first time acknowledged Eritrean backing for their cause.

”As long as Ethiopia is in our country, talks with the government cannot go ahead,” the Islamists’ main leader, Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, told foreign correspondents in Mogadishu.

Ethiopia has sent several thousands troops into Somalia, according to witnesses and regional experts, to counter expansion by the Islamists, who took Mogadishu last month, and protect the fragile interim government.

”If the government cares about the Somalis, it should remove our enemy from the country … Ethiopia has invaded us.”

Aweys, a hardliner who is on United States and United Nations lists of people linked to terrorism, was speaking before the UN special envoy to Somalia, Francois Lonseny Fall, met Islamist leaders in Mogadishu to try and promote the talks in Sudan.

But the same position was ratified by another Islamist leader, Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, when he came out of the meeting.

”One of the agreements we reached with the government was that no foreign troops should be brought to Somalia, and if they come in then the talks cannot go ahead,” he said.

The government of President Abdullahi Yusuf is based in a provincial town, Baidoa, where witnesses say Ethiopian soldiers are guarding key buildings. Addis Ababa backs Yusuf but regards the Islamists as led by ”terrorists”.

In a rare public acknowledgement of Eritrean support for the Islamists — which the UN and regional analysts have confirmed — Islamist leader Aweys said Asmara was providing support in gratitude for past help.

”The previous Somali government [of President Mohamed Siad Barre] helped Eritrea during its struggle for independence from Ethiopia,” he said. ”Eritrea helps the Somali people, they are returning back the favour.”

The UN has said Eritrea has funnelled arms and weapons to the Islamists, while analysts believe Eritrean military advisers are in Mogadishu.

Aweys denied the Islamists planned to expand to Baidoa. ”There has never been an intention of attacking Baidoa,” he said. — Reuters

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