‘We are going to liberate Somalia’

The senior leader of Somalia’s Islamist opposition vowed on Wednesday to expel United States-backed Ethiopian troops by force and create an Islamic republic in the war-torn country on the Horn of Africa.

Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, who led Somalia’s Islamic Courts movement and who the Bush administration claims is a terrorist linked to al-Qaeda, said Mogadishu’s Western-backed Transitional Federal Government was run by ”traitors”.

United Nations-sponsored peace talks that opened in Djibouti last week were doomed to fail unless Ethiopia first withdrew all its forces, he added. And, unless the US and other Western countries heeded his words, the violence in Somalia would only get worse.

”The UN is not impartial. We don’t want to pursue this [peace] process. Our plan is to continue the struggle. It is important to expel the enemy from all areas,” Aweys said. ”We don’t want a fight to the death. We don’t want to kill all the Ethiopian soldiers. We want to save them. We want them to leave.”

Aweys (62) made the comments in a rare interview at his base in Asmara, the Eritrean capital. To American dismay, many Somali Islamists gained a safe haven in Asmara after the Ethiopian intervention in late 2006 broke the Islamic Courts’ grip on Mogadishu and southern Somalia.

A successor organisation to the Islamic Courts, the Alliance for the Re-liberation of Somalia, was launched in Asmara last autumn. Sheikh Sharif Ahmed became its chairperson. Western diplomats regard him as a moderate who may hold the key to national reconciliation. But Sharif (44) is viewed with suspicion by an older generation of hardliners and some youthful militants. Diverging approaches have provoked speculation about a looming power struggle.

Aweys remains the Somali Islamists’ most influential and respected figure. Sporting an orange-dyed goatee beard, oval-shaped spectacles and a grey, collarless suit, he sees himself as a man on a mission.

He and his aides do not discourage comparisons with democratic South Africa’s founding father, Nelson Mandela. One day, he said with a laugh, he could become Somalia’s Thomas Jefferson, ”but only if I win”.

Aweys complains that the opposition delegation led by Sharif went to the Djibouti talks without fully consulting him and other members of the alliance. ”They went there without consent,” he said. ”If there is a fair and balanced mediation by the international community, we could accept that. But the UN is no good.”

A Western diplomat said: ”Clearly there are strains showing within the alliance; they are not all reading from the same page. That is further complicated by a range of other interests … from the sub-clans to regional players.”

But convening a first round of exploratory negotiations was nevertheless a considerable step forward. ”They’ve done very well to get so far.”

Aweys said the Bush administration’s interference in Somalia and its support for Ethiopia’s actions were making it more difficult to find peaceful solutions. ”They back up the Ethiopian troops. Otherwise, Ethiopia would never have come to Somalia,” he said.

He singled out US offshore missile attacks and air strikes on supposed Islamist terrorist targets deep inside Somalia that, he said, routinely killed and maimed civilians.

Aden Hashi Ayro, the leader of al-Shabaab, the armed wing of the Islamic Courts and an Aweys protege, was killed in a US air strike earlier this month.

”[George] Bush calls everyone who is against him a terrorist. It is a meaningless word. The al-Qaeda allegation is a false allegation,” Aweys said. ”Bush thinks he is in charge of the world. His policy towards Somalia and the rest of the Islamic countries is unfair. But, historically, every great power comes to an end. Bush’s power will also end one day.

”Every country has the right to fight for its freedom. If the United Kingdom was invaded, would the British people not fight the invaders?

”We are going to liberate Somalia from Ethiopia. Then we will form a government of national unity,” Aweys said. ”We are all Muslims in Somalia. We have no idea of secularism. The people will place their trust in religion.”

But such a policy of inclusion would not be extended to members of the Transitional Federal Government, whom Aweys likened to European collaborators with Hitler. They would either be exiled or put on trial, he said.

US officials say they support the nascent peace process — a special US envoy, John Yates, attended the Djibouti talks — but suggest that Ethiopia’s troops will be unable to leave until the security situation improves.

On Wednesday, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, vowed to keep troops in Somalia. ”Ethiopian forces did not enter Somalia to control the country, but to make sure that extremist forces will not be in power in that country,” he said.

”The Islamic Courts Union in Somalia declared jihad against Ethiopia twice, along with all sorts of anti-peace forces … It was our responsibility to resolve the huge wave of jihadists.”

Aweys also accused Ethiopian troops of committing atrocities against civilians, a claim supported by an Amnesty International report this month. Ethiopia rejects the accusations as propaganda or misinformed hearsay.

As the political wrangling continues, UN agencies warn that Somalia is slipping closer to catastrophe, due to a combination of unmitigated violence, large-scale population displacement, drought, failed harvests, rising global food and energy prices and endemic lawlessness.

The UN says up to 3,5-million Somalis — about half the population — may soon need humanitarian assistance. — Â

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