Critical Somali peace talks in turmoil

Negotiators scrambled on Tuesday to salvage peace talks aimed at averting all-out war between Somalia’s powerful Islamists and its weak government as the deeply divided sides both threatened to quit.

In a last-ditch bid to keep the Khartoum negotiations from collapsing even before they begin, international observers proposed Sudan as sole mediator in a compromise intended to overcome Islamist objections to Kenya, diplomats said.

But it was not immediately clear if the suggestion would work as it does not address the Islamist demand for the withdrawal of Ethiopian troops allegedly in Somalia, and the government is insisting on a Kenyan role.

“After consultations to save the Somali peace talks, we have decided to propose Sudan, as the host country, to be the sole mediator,” a senior European diplomat said at the venue for the discussions of condition of anonymity.

The diplomat said the proposal was agreed by the African Union, the Arab League, the East African regional Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (Igad), the United Nations and the United States-inspired International Contact Group on Somalia.

All fear the failure of the talks could lead to a full-scale war that risks engulfing the Horn of Africa region in wider conflict, possibly drawing in arch-foe neighbours Ethiopia and Eritrea.

Diplomats said they hoped the compromise on mediation would ease the hard-line Islamist stance on Ethiopia, which they have accused of declaring war on them and against which they have called for holy war.

A source close to the Islamist delegation declined to comment on any possible change to the Ethiopian troop-withdrawal demand but said it would likely accept Sudan as sole mediator.

‘All must go as planned’

But a senior Somali government official said the country’s team would reject any alteration in the format for mediating the talks that were supposed to begin on Monday.

“Any change in the peace-talks formula will not be accepted by the transitional federal government,” the official said on condition of anonymity. “Everything must go as planned.”

“If Kenya is not part of the mediation, we will not attend the meeting,” government delegation chief and Somali Deputy Prime Minister Abdullahi Sheikh Ismail said earlier.

Kenya was appointed this month to co-chair the negotiations with the Arab League, which had been the sole mediator at two previous rounds of talks, after the government complained of Arab bias.

The stalemate has sent tensions soaring between the two sides as their forces in Somalia gird for battle near the government’s temporary seat of Baidoa, where the Islamists say thousands of Ethiopian troops have been sent.

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.

Peacekeepers

Along with Kenya, Ethiopia also backs the deployment of an AU-endorsed Igad peacekeeping mission to help the Somali government, the limited authority of which is under serious threat from the Islamists.

The Islamists have vowed to fight any foreign troops on Somali soil and harbour deep suspicions of Kenya, where the transitional government was formed in 2004 and which currently holds the Igad chairmanship.

Kenya’s ambassador to Somalia, Mohamed Abdi Affey, blamed “rumours” and “misinformation” for the hard-line Islamic stance on his country and said Nairobi was “not imposing” itself as mediator but had been invited.

The seven-member Igad is deeply split over the proposed mission, with members Eritrea and Djibouti opposing the force; Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda, the Somali government in favour; and Sudan backing off earlier support.

The Islamists on Monday accused Igad and the AU, which has endorsed the force, of creating “new hostilities”. They said they should be praised for curbing rampant lawlessness, endemic for 15 years, in areas they control since they seized Mogadishu in June and have now expanded their territory to include most of south and central Somalia.

Somalia has been without a functioning central administration since the 1991 ouster of strongman Mohamed Siad Barre, and the government has been wracked by infighting and its inability to assert control over much of the country.—Sapa-AFP

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