UN: Somali peace talks to get under way in Djibouti

Somali government officials and exiled Islamist opposition leaders are to hold face-to-face peace talks in Djibouti, the United Nations special envoy to the country said on Friday.

Ahmed Ould Abdallah said the UN-sponsored talks will start on Saturday, sitting seven members of Prime Minister Nur Hassan Hussein’s transitional executive at the same table as seven opposition figures, mainly Islamists.

Somalia has been wracked by conflict since 1991, with the capital, Mogadishu, plagued by political and civil unrest, food riots and attacks on Western aid agencies.

The closed-doors discussions are expected to last up to a week, with Ould Abdallah expressing optimism after two failed peace conferences in 2007.

“You make peace in the first instance with your enemies, not your friends,” Ould Abdallah said in a statement. The talks will be “without external influence”, he added.

Since taking office in November, Hussein has engaged Somalia’s Islamist opposition—unlike his predecessor Ali Mohamed Gedi.

The signs of hope for Somalia, where civil chaos has defied more than a dozen peace initiatives since former president Mohamed Siad Barre was ousted in 1991, come even as violence continues to rage across the country.

The Islamic Courts Union, a militia that ousted US-backed warlords from Mogadishu in 2006, briefly ruled large parts of the country before being defeated by Ethiopian forces last year.

Separately, a US air raid on May 1 killed at least 12 people, including an alleged al-Qaeda leader in the country.

Ethiopian-backed Somali government troops are still battling the movement’s military wing and allied clans in a guerrilla war that has left thousands dead and displaced hundreds of thousands.

The UN Resident Humanitarian Coordinator to Somalia, Graham Farmer, said so far at least 2,5-million people—including a million displaced—are in need of assistance, but violence has kept aid workers at bay.

“Aware that the need for assistance is increasing, we are committed to expanding our work to everywhere we can. However, it is extremely unfortunate that at this time of extreme need, our ability to respond has been threatened by the deteriorating security situation on the ground,” Farmer said in a letter to Somali officials.

“We need better security and safety to provide vulnerable populations the assistance they need,” he said, pleading with the elders and all warring sides to ensure aid reaches the needy.

Hardliners from Somalia’s dominant Hawiye clan and the Islamist opposition had refused to take part in previous reconciliation attempts, arguing that talks should be held outside of Somalia and only after an Ethiopian withdrawal.

But the leader of the Alliance for the Re-liberation of Somalia—an opposition umbrella group based in Asmara, Eritrea, and dominated by Islamists—said last month that his movement was willing to give Hussein a chance.—Sapa-AFP

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