Somali president dismisses rumours of ill health

Somali President Abdullahi Yusuf said on Friday he was in good health after recovering from a bout of pneumonia, and laughed off a flurry of reports he was near death.

”I’m fine, I am OK,” Yusuf told Reuters in an exclusive interview from his hospital bed in Nairobi. ”I had pneumonia, but the doctors have taken it out [treated it] and I am well now,” he said, speaking in fluent English.

Yusuf, who had a liver transplant 13 years ago, said he would travel very soon to London for his yearly check-up.

The former Somali army colonel and warlord (72) was flown into the capital of neighbouring Kenya on Tuesday with a chest problem that set off a string of reports that he was near death.

Asked about those, Yusuf dismissed them, laughing heartily. He confirmed that his birthdate was December 15 1934 and said: ”I am an old man already.”

Yusuf spoke to Reuters while seated upright in his hospital bed, where he was watching television and speaking with aides.

Aides have attributed his illness to the stress of Somali politics over the past month, which has seen the old soldier run one prime minister out of office and bring in another one.

Yusuf appointed long-time Somali civil servant and lawyer Nur Hassan Hussein as prime minister almost three weeks ago.

”He’s professional, he’s been a police colonel. He knows governance completely and has a degree in law. And he is absolutely serious,” Yusuf said.

Hussein, who won international diplomatic praise for his resume, which includes a 16-year stint heading Somalia’s Red Crescent Society, is already facing his first political setback.

Five ministers resigned from the Cabinet barely 24 hours after their appointment on Sunday, saying their clans had been snubbed.

Yusuf dismissed their departure: ”There are some people in the Cabinet who are making noise, but they will quiet down.”

Asked if his transitional federal government will be ready to hold elections in late 2009 as is required under its charter, he said he and Hussein would make sure that happened.

”Of course. That is compulsory. Our charter compels us not to postpone the election. We will not,” he said.

Besides internal wrangling, Yusuf’s government faces a persistent insurgency in Mogadishu, where Islamist militants are fighting Somali troops and their Ethiopian allies.

The conflict has killed 6 000 people this year and cooled hopes of a full African Union peacekeeping force of 8 000 soldiers. So far, only 1 600 Ugandan troops have arrived, while other nations have repeatedly delayed their pledged deployments.

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has said he does not believe a UN peacekeeping mission can be deployed, which Yusuf has asked for since taking office in October 2004.

However, Yusuf said Mogadishu was improving and he would return to the coastal capital that his government — with Ethiopian help — wrested from a militant Islamist movement in a lightning war nearly a year ago.

The insurgency and retaliatory strikes by the government and allied forces have created what the UN calls Africa’s worst humanitarian crisis, with one million people uprooted from their homes in the Horn of Africa country.

Yusuf’s government is the 14th attempt at establishing central rule in Somalia since warlords, including Yusuf, ousted dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991. — Reuters

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