16 May 2008

Somalia: Peace Talks Rescheduled As Islamist Chief Admits Divisions

A United Nations-sponsored peace process between Somalia's interim government and the opposition came to an uneventful end Friday, the UN Special Envoy to Somalia said.

Mr. Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, who organized the peace talks, told journalists in Djibouti that the talks will resume on 31 May.

Diplomatic sources in Djibouti City tell Garowe Online that separate delegations from the Somali government and the Eritrea-based opposition group ARS [the Alliance for the Re-liberation of Somalia] did not hold any direct meetings during the span for four days.

However, Mr. Ould-Abdallah said that a preliminary accord has been reached between the two sides, including an agreement allowing the improvement of humanitarian access to Somalia's needy population.

UN representatives have returned to their home base in Nairobi, Kenya, while Somali government delegates flew back to Mogadishu.

The opposition delegates remain in Djibouti, where they were joined on Friday by ARS Executive Committee Chairman Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed and the group's Central Committee head, Sharif Hassan Sheikh Aden.

But a high-profile ARS figure, Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, has spurred rumors of division among Somalia's exiled opposition leaders after rejecting the Djibouti-based peace process as "a waste of time."

Sheikh Aweys urged ARS delegates in Djibouti to return to Asmara, Eritrea, where the ARS was founded last year and where the opposition group's leaders have lived since January 2007, when Ethiopian troops invaded Somalia at the request of the weak interim government.

Answering a reporter's question during a press conference in Asmara, Sheikh Aweys said: "No, no...we [ARS] did not approve the [Djibouti-based peace] talks because the two leaders [Sheikh Sharif and Sharif Hassan] have not set foot in Asmara for 40 days, and there were no consultations [regarding the talks]."

Insiders described the comments as Sheikh Aweys' harshest public criticism of Sheikh Sharif and Sharif Hassan, the opposition's highest-ranking officials.

In 2006, Sheikh Sharif was the Islamic Courts executive head when the Islamist militia controlled much of southern and central Somalia, while Sharif Hassan is a former parliament Speaker in Somalia's current transitional government.

Analysts contend that Sheikh Aweys is the Somali Islamist movement's spiritual leader and the mentor of Sheikh Aden Hashi Ayro, leader of the al Shabaab guerrillas who was killed in a U.S. air strike earlier this month.

Somalia has been mired in armed conflict since the 1991 overthrow of military dictator Siad Barre.

In December 2006, Ethiopian troops invaded the country to oust Mogadishu's Islamic Courts rulers and install the interim government in the capital.

Islamist-led rebels have since waged a ruthless guerrilla war against the Ethiopian-backed interim government, leading to thousands of deaths and displaced 1 million Somalis internally.

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