Somalia on edge of all-out war as talks collapse

Somalia’s weak government and the powerful Islamists on Thursday traded barbs, escalating fears of a full-scale war, a day after peace talks aimed at easing tension in the Horn of Africa nation collapsed.

As threats of war mounted at home, neighbouring Ethiopia warned that the Islamists were “making conflict inevitable” by refusing to meet the country’s weak government for peace talks in Khartoum.

Despite intense last-ditch intervention by diplomats, the Islamists refused to participate in the talks until Ethiopian forces deployed in Somalia pull out, while the government rejected the mediator’s plea for a formal delay in negotiations.

“The Islamic courts are responsible for the failure of the talks in Khartoum. Their pre-conditions showed their desire of turning Somali into a battlefield,” said chief government negotiator Abdullahi Sheikh Ismail.

Ismail warned that the government would not sit and watch as the Islamists violate previous agreements, notably a truce and mutual recognition pact.

“The government of Somalia has the right to take all the necessary action to secure the whole of Somalia,” added Ismail, also deputy prime minister.

“We will not sit and watch while criminal acts of the Islamic courts devastate Somalia. Our hands will not be tied, we will act very soon,” he added.

But the Islamists said the talks collapsed because Ethiopia refused to heed calls to pull out thousands of troops deployed to protect the government in Baidoa, 250km north-west of the capital, from a feared Islamic advance.

In Mogadishu, the Islamists, who blame Ethiopia for the collapse of the talks, said Addis Ababa had already sent 12 000 forces into parts of south-central Somalia who are ready to launch attacks.

“The talks collapsed because of Ethiopian troops,” said Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, the head of the Islamists’ executive committee.

“We can confirm that there are 12 000 Ethiopian forces inside Somali territory.
They are going to attack us and take our country and that will not happen by the wishes of Allah,” Ahmed told thousands of soldiers from the former Somali army, now a militia, in southern Mogadishu.

In a blunt assessment of the worsening situation in Somalia, the Ethiopian foreign ministry blamed “extremist” Islamists for the failure of the talks and looming war.

“The extremists who are setting the tone are not for peace, they are making conflict inevitable,” ministry spokesperson Solomon Abebe said.

“From the peace talks, we can understand that the extremists are not serious about peace,” he told Agence France-Presse, accusing the Islamists of deception by refusing to meet with the government until Ethiopian troops allegedly in Somalia withdraw.

“They have used it to buy time and their excuse is lame excuse,” Abebe said.

Reports by an independent panel monitoring the United Nations arms embargo on Somalia said there were up to 8 000 Ethiopian and 2 000 Eritreans supporting rival sides.

Ethiopia accused the Islamists of having links with Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network, but they say they are only interested in restoring law and order in the country.

The rising influence of the Islamists, who control much of the south, has threatened the authority of the government.

They swapped accusations as tension mounted in south-central Somalia, where the rivals reinforced their defences, a day after artillery, rockets and mortars were fired into the air in shows of force over a 20k no-man’s land separating them near Baidoa.

All fear a full-scale war that could embroil the Horn of Africa region in conflict, drawing in arch-foe neighbours Ethiopia and Eritrea, who are accused of backing the rival Somali factions.

Ethiopia and Eritrea are suspected by many to be using Somalia as a proxy battlefield for their unresolved 1998 to 2000 border war and there are fears that they could be drawn into a conflict between the Islamists and Somali government.

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

More than a dozen internationally backed attempts have failed to restore peace in Somalia, a lawless nation of about 10-million that has also been ravaged by natural calamities, notably famine and floods.—AFP

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