Somali opposition figures to unite in Eritrea

Somali opposition leaders, including several senior Islamists, are to meet in Eritrea from Thursday to try to unite against the Ethiopian-backed government at talks intended to a rival a Mogadishu peace conference.

Many Somali dissidents have already made their home in Eritrea, which has been accused by the United States and United Nations of sending arms to insurgents battling Ethiopian and Somali government troops in Mogadishu.

Other opposition figures were trickling in from abroad to fill up hotels in the capital, Asmara. Organisers expect up to 450 delegates for the talks, expected to last between a week and ten days.

“The idea is to make an alliance that will help make Somalia free again. We want Ethiopia to leave Somalia without the bloodshed and violence it has brought,” said Ibrahim Adow, Somalia Islamic Courts Council (SICC) foreign affairs spokesperson.

Thousands of Ethiopian troops helped the interim Somali government drive the SICC out of Mogadishu and end its six-month rule of most of the south at the end of 2006.

The Asmara talks aim to unite a wide range of anti-government players from dissident lawmakers, Islamists, civil society groups and members of the Somali diaspora.

“It will put a face on the opposition ...
it’s not going to unify all the opposition,” a Nairobi-based analyst said. “It will create a focus for political and financial support.”

The meeting is set to start a week after a National Reconciliation Conference, backed by the government and the international community, closed in Somalia with a raft of resolutions but little impact on the Islamist-led insurgency raging in Mogadishu.

Various opposition figures had boycotted those talks.

Leadership questions

Former deputy prime minister, Hussein Aideed, said he hoped the Asmara conference would be more inclusive.

“We need a common agenda, platform and vision. This conference will not solve all the problems of Somalia. We should create a consensus approach including those who disapprove of this conference,” he told Reuters by telephone.

“The failure of the last conference [in Mogadishu] was that it ignored key political leaders and positions and the venue was not correct,” he added.

Tussles over leadership posts in a new opposition umbrella group may surface in Asmara, analysts say. Organisers insist the new grouping will not be dominated by Islamists, whom Ethiopia and the United States have accused of having ties to al-Qaeda.

“The policy and strategy of the new organisation will be decided by the new leadership and not by the Islamic Courts,” Abdirahman Warsame, representative of Somalia’s diaspora community, told reporters in Asmara.

The location of the talks is a controversial one since Washington has said it is considering placing Eritrea on its list of state sponsors of terrorism, accusing the country of aiding the Somali insurgents.

Eritrea denies accusations of shipping arms to Somalia.

“The hosting of the conference certainly sours relations with Washington further ... It is as important a sore point for Washington as is the weapons pipeline,” said a US expert on Somalia, Michael Weinstein, of Power and Interest News Report.

“The US is unlikely to engage the [Somali] opposition and is likely to be more hostile than necessary because it is supported by Eritrea,” the Nairobi-based analyst added.—Reuters

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