23 April 2009

Somalia: Sheikh Aweys Returns to Country to 'Reconcile Islamist Factions'

The leading opposition figure in Somalia returned to the country on Thursday after spending more than two years exiled in Eritrea, Radio Garowe reports.

Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, the former legislative head of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), arrived on a private plane at No.50 airstrip in Lower Shabelle region.

He was accompanied by a seven-member delegation from the Alliance for the Re-liberation of Somalia (ARS), an Islamist-led opposition group that divided into two camps months before ex-ICU executive chief Sheikh Sharif Ahmed became President of Somalia.

Sheikh Aweys

"I will meet with anyone concerned about Somalia and my trip [to Somalia] is not influenced by foreign countries," Sheikh Aweys told Qatar-based Al Jazeera TV, although he did not specify whether he plans to meet with President Sheikh Sharif.

Sheikh Ismail Haji Addow, a senior member of ARS-Eritrea, told reporters that Sheikh Aweys would meet with meet with different sections of society in Mogadishu to promote reconciliation among Islamist factions.

"We [ARS-Eritrea] have moved back to Mogadishu, but we will keep an office in Eritrea," Sheikh Addow said, while underscoring that Sheikh Aweys' main task would be to reconcile factions within the muqawama, or the resistance movement that became popular during the Ethiopian army's two-year intervention in south-central Somalia.

Earlier this month, Sheikh Aweys briefly visited the Sudan where media reports anticipated that he would meet with a delegation from President Sheikh Sharif's government.

But a source at the Somali Embassy in Khartoum said Sheikh Aweys refused to meet with members of the interim government, with ARS-Eritrea official Gen. Jama Mohamed Ghalib publicly claiming that the sticking point remained the presence of African Union peacekeepers (AMISOM) in Mogadishu.

Sheikh Aweys fled Mogadishu in Jan. 2007 as Ethiopian troops backing then-Somali President Abdullahi Yusuf's interim government entered the capital and dislodged the ICU from power.

The ICU fractured into different factions and began a bloody guerrilla war, known locally as the muqawama.

Some ICU factions later joined the Somali government, but the hardliners like Al Shabaab and Hizbul Islam - to which Sheikh Aweys and the ARS-Eritrea faction is a member - have rejected to recognize the government.

In recent days, two ICU militia commanders have been gunned down in Mogadishu in a fashion similar to the assassinations of government officials during the Ethiopian army's intervention.

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