Somali leader in hospital as Islamist rejects talks

Somali President Abdullahi Yusuf spent a second day in hospital on Wednesday with a condition some sources called very serious but an envoy said was a routine check-up for an old liver transplant.

In a tumultuous week for Somali politics, an exiled Islamist leader rejected a call by Somalia’s new prime minister for talks to try to end 16 years of conflict and stem a year-long insurgency that has killed about 6 000 civilians.

And the prime minister himself, Nur Hassan Hussein, was digesting the resignation of five ministers from a Cabinet he named only on Sunday in a blow to his efforts to unify a government paralysed by nearly three years of in-fighting.

At Nairobi Hospital, Somalia’s ambassador to Kenya, Mohamed Ali Nur, said the president—who gives his age as 72 but is said by some to be nearer 80—was having a “routine check-up” en route to see doctors in London where he had the transplant.

“The president is very fine and we don’t like the allegations [that it is worse],” he told reporters. “I can tell you that he is okay, he was actually exercising.”

But a diplomat tracking Somalia said officials were hiding the truth after Yusuf was flown into Nairobi on Tuesday.

“He is very, very bad. His stomach is inflated 10cm and he is permanently on an oxygen mask,” he said, citing conversations with Somali officials on Wednesday.

“They are deliberately hiding the news.”

In Eritrea, Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, who is chairperson of the opposition Alliance For the Re-Liberation of Somalia (ARS) and considered a relative moderate among the Islamist movement, scoffed at the new premier’s call for dialogue.

“Our problem is not with the old prime minister or the new prime minister.
Our problem is Ethiopia’s occupation,” he said.

US wants ‘broad’ government

Ahmed’s Islamist courts movement ruled Mogadishu for six months last year, until it was routed by Ethiopia’s army backing forces from the interim Somali government.

“If the Ethiopian occupation is removed then everything is possible,” Ahmed added in an interview with Reuters.

Hard-line Islamists have led an insurgency against the government and Ethiopian troops throughout 2007. A rights group said this week nearly 6 000 civilians had died in Mogadishu.

As well as political turmoil and fighting, Somalia faces a huge social crisis with one million internal refugees.

UN officials say the humanitarian situation is Africa’s most extreme, with red tape and restrictions hampering aid to hundreds of thousands uprooted by the fighting.

But restrictions on UN World Food Programme (WFP) aid to the Lower Shabelle region were lifted on Wednesday, a day after the Somali government blocked two shiploads of food to the area.

Regional governor Abdulqadir Sheikh Mohamed said the government security agency had reached an agreement with WFP.

“The relief aid has been allowed again, and now there are two WFP vessels at the port of Marka. There are two French warships escorting these two WFP ships,” he told Reuters.

A WFP official in Nairobi confirmed the ban was lifted.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, on a brief trip to sub-Saharan Africa, was due to meet Hussein in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, late on Wednesday, with a message for the prime minister to promote inclusive government.

“It’s got to be broad,” she said. “The extremists are going to have to be set aside. The problem is not to call everyone extremists who are in the opposition.”—Reuters

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