8 April 2009

Somalia: 'Talks Open' Between Govt, Hizbul Islam Faction

Secret talks have began between Somalia's interim government and a group of Islamist hardliners, with independent sources saying Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys is now part of the ongoing process, Radio Garowe reports.

Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, Somalia's new president, was the co-leader of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) with Sheikh Aweys when the group rose to power in south-central Somalia in mid-2006.

"Sheikh Aweys is expected to come to Mogadishu soon, so he can join the talks," said a source close to President Sheikh Sharif's government.

The source noted that the Sudanese government has "convinced" Sheikh Aweys to join the peace talks with Sheikh Sharif's interim government, with Islamic scholars reportedly leading the mediation effort.

Mr. Abdullahi Ali, a Somali political analyst, told the VOA Somali Service that the Arab League's decision to give US$18million donation to President Sheikh Sharif's government came with the "condition" of entering peace talks with the armed opposition, particulary the Sheikh Aweys camp.

Since January, Sheikh Aweys has been a key figure in the Hizbul Islam [Party of Islam] armed group where four Islamist factions merged into a united front, including the Eritrea-based ICU faction and Kismayo-based Ras Kamboni faction.

The Hizbul Islam group has been divided in recent weeks, with ex-ICU defense chief Yusuf Indho Ade leading a camp rival to Sheikh Aweys. The Indho Ade camp has overtly supported Sheikh Sharif's government under the condition of introducing Islamic law.

It is not clear where the ongoing peace talks between the Somali government and a part of the armed opposition will lead, but Sheikh Aweys has recently left Eritrea and is currently in Sudan.

Sheikh Aweys has been on the U.S. terror watch list in recent years.

Separately, Al Shabaab guerrillas are not part of the peace process, although the group controls many regions in southern Somalia. The U.S. government considers Al Shabaab to be a terrorist organization.

Somalia has been mired in armed conflict since the early 1990s and Sheikh Sharif's government is the 15th attempt to restore national order in the war-torn Horn of Africa country.

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