Somali peace talks delayed, say officials

Peace talks aimed at averting all-out war between Somalia’s powerful Islamists and a weak government failed to start as scheduled on Monday, amid an apparent rift in the governmental delegation.

A planned third round of negotiations, to be mediated by the Arab League and Kenya, had been due to begin on Monday morning, but the government’s delegation had not yet arrived in Khartoum by the scheduled start time, officials said.

“The conference will be delayed because of internal disputes among the transitional federal government,” said one Arab League official, adding that the delegation was expected later in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum.

“After they arrive, the conference will start in the afternoon,” the official told Agence France-Presse on condition of anonymity at the talks’ venue.

Other officials in Khartoum said the government delegation was delayed in leaving the administration’s seat in the Somali town of Baidoa due to differences between the two men appointed to lead it.

Government officials in Baidoa could not immediately be reached for comment.

Soaring tensions between the government and the Islamists, who seized Mogadishu in June and now control almost all of southern and central Somalia, have raised fears of a full-scale war in the chaotic country.

The apparent rift deals a new blow to prospects for the talks, which had already been jeopardised by the Islamists’ stated refusal to meet face-to-face with the government until Ethiopian troops allegedly in Somalia have withdrawn.

The Islamists have also rejected the mediation of Kenya, accusing the country, which chairs a regional East African bloc planning to send peacekeepers to Somalia, of bias toward the government.

The Islamists have declared holy war against Ethiopian soldiers said to be in Somalia and have accused Kenya of bias as it supports the government’s call for peacekeepers, also backed by Ethiopia.

“We will go to Khartoum for the negotiations but as long as Ethiopian troops are inside Somalia, we shall not meet the government face-to-face,” the Islamists’ top foreign affairs official, Ibrahim Hassan Adow, said on Sunday.

Mainly Christian Ethiopia denies reports it has as many as 8 000 soldiers in Somalia but acknowledges sending military advisers to help protect the government from “jihadists”, some of whom are accused of links with al-Qaeda.

Adow also said the Islamists rejected the mediation of Kenya, which was appointed this month to co-chair the negotiations with the Arab League that had been the sole mediator at two previous rounds.

“The government of Kenya is not neutral in the Somali conflict and its presence will not be accepted by the Islamic courts,” he said.

Kenya was named co-chair after the transitional government accused the Arab League of bias toward the Islamists.

Kenya currently holds the presidency of the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (Igad), a group of seven East African nations that brokered the formation of the government in 2004 and now plans to send peacekeepers there.

But the bloc is deeply split over the proposed mission, with members Eritrea and Djibouti opposing the force; Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda, the Somali government in favor; and Sudan backing off earlier support.

The Islamists have vowed to fight any foreign troops on Somali territory.

Some countries, notably the United States, fear that Ethiopia and Eritrea, who fought a bloody 1998 to 2000 war over their border that is still unresolved, have turned Somalia into a proxy battleground for their dispute.

United Nations experts say Eritrea has sent arms to the Islamists and Asmara on Sunday hotly rejected claims it had 2 000 troops in Somalia, maintaining the allegation was a US-inspired “act of pure defamation”.

Somalia has been without a functioning central administration since 1991 and the government, created two years ago, has been wracked by infighting and its inability to assert control over much of the country.—AFP

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