Somalis to Return to Talks
By MOHAMED OLAD HASSAN Associated Press Writer
December 20,2006 | MOGADISHU, Somalia -- Somalia's transitional government and its rivals in an Islamic movement have agreed to return to peace talks, a European Union envoy said Wednesday. The agreement came on a day of heavy fighting outside the only town the government controls, underlining the difficulties of securing peace in this chaotic Horn of Africa country.
"I am very happy the Islamic courts have accepted to engage in political dialogue with the transitional government," said EU envoy Louis Michel.
No date was given for the talks, which were to take place in Khartoum, Sudan.
Leaders of the Islamic movement said they were willing to attend the talks without conditions, after previously saying they would not participate until Ethiopian troops backing the government withdrew from the country.
"For me this is very significant," Michel told reporters as he left the Somali capital, Mogadishu, after a day of diplomacy.
Both sides are vying for control of the country. The government holds only a small area around the central town of Baidoa. Islamic militiamen control the capital, Mogadishu, about 140 miles to the southeast, and have fanned out across most of southern Somalia.
Michel, the European commissioner for development and aid, was meeting with Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi and President Abdullahi Yusuf in Baidoa when attacks began in two villages -- Moode Moode and Daynunay -- on the outskirts of the town.
Fighters from both sides clashed using artillery, rocket-propelled grenades and anti-aircraft guns mounted on pickup trucks in what appeared to be probing attacks rather than a full scale advance. There were no immediate reports of casualties.
"Islamic militias have attacked us and the fighting is continuing," Somalia's deputy defense minister Salad Ali Jelle told The Associated Press. Abdirahin Ali Mudey, spokesman for the Islamic movement, said they had captured Daynunay.
Somali government officials insisted Baidoa was not threatened and Islamic leader Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys played down the fighting.
"This was not full scale war," he told journalists after meeting with Michel. "The fighting was a small incident between the Islamic courts and the Ethiopians, not between us and the government."
Fears of a full-blown civil war have intensified in recent weeks as the government and the rival Council of Islamic Courts rejected peace talks and threatened military action. Both sides have moved fighters, fuel and ammunition to the front lines.
Somalia has not had an effective government since 1991.
The secular government, set up in 2004 and backed by the United Nations, has rejected religious rule for Somalia, while the Muslim leaders have called for an Islamic government.
The U.N believes as many as 8,000 Ethiopian troops may be in the country in support of the government while rival Eritrea has deployed 2,000 troops in support of the Islamic group. Both countries deny the charges.
A new war would only compound Somalia's suffering, the top U.N. official for Somalia warned last week.
A drought wiped out most of the country's crops and livestock in late 2005 and early 2006, while flooding since September has destroyed tens of thousands of homes and spread more misery.
U.N. officials fear that as many as 400,000 refugees could flee into neighboring Kenya, driven by war, flood and famine.
Foreign governments are also concerned about the Islamic movement's alleged ties to international terrorists, something Islamic leaders have repeatedly denied.
Jendayi Frazer, the top U.S. diplomat for Africa, has said al-Qaida militants are operating with "great comfort" in Somalia, providing training and assistance to the Islamic militia.
Somali and Ethiopian officials have said they believe men wanted in connection with the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania now hold senior command positions within the Islamic forces.
Jelle, Somalia's deputy defense minister, told reporters Wednesday that one of the suspects in the embassy bombings, Abu Talha al Sudani, was leading fighting a day earlier near Idale, 37 miles southwest of Baidoa. Ten people were killed.
"Sudani, a well-known terrorist, is in charge of the Islamic militias," Jelle said. "He was leading the militias who attacked us late Tuesday."