Somali leaders and diplomats search for a way to avoid war

Tuesday, November 21st 2006, 5:27 am
By: News On 6

NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) Cool seasonal rains have dampened fighting between Somalia's Islamic militants and the secular government, a lull that offers this East African country perhaps its last chance to avoid a larger war.

"There is a window of opportunity,'' Italian envoy Mario Raffaelli said. "The priority is to avoid a fight which would bring unthinkable consequences.''

There have been minor skirmishes in the past few weeks, but 20 years of neglect has left Somalia's road system virtually impassable when it rains.

But the weapons that have been pouring into Somalia in recent months have set the stage for a conflict more violent than the troubled country has ever known when the rains stop and the roads reopen.

So diplomats are trying to take advantage of the military stalemate to break the diplomatic deadlock.

The standoff is between the transitional federal government, which has Western and U.N. recognition but little authority on the ground, and the Council of Islamic Courts, which controls most of southern Somalia.

The recognized government counts on Christian and African nations for backing. Led by Ethiopia, a bloc of seven African countries known as the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development insists that the government it helped create is the only legitimate authority.

The Council of Islamic Courts has close ties to the 22-nation Arab League. According to a U.N. report on arms smuggling, Egypt, Libya and Saudi Arabia have sent arms and supplies to the Islamic militia.

Both IGAD and the Arab League have been mediating peace talks, but also added to the tensions. The third round held in Khartoum, Sudan in late October broke down after the Islamic courts rejected IGAD as a mediator and the government objected to the Arab League.

Since the talks failed, the Islamic courts have massed troops around Baidoa, the only town held by the government. Ethiopian military advisers have helped government militias strengthen Baidoa's defenses. Ethi

opian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has promised to send tens of thousands of troops across the border if the Islamic courts attack.

To head off the confrontation, two parallel peace efforts have begun, one led by Egypt, the other between Somalis themselves with backing from Europe.

Egypt invited the leader of the Islamic courts, Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys, for a visit to Cairo in late October, where he met with intelligence chief Gen. Omar Suleiman, diplomats said. Suleiman reportedly told Aweys, who the U.S. government says is a terrorist, that the Islamic courts need to work on a peace deal with the government and to soften the fundamentalist rhetoric.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Aweys acknowledged traveling to Cairo, but would not discuss his meetings there. He did say, however, that the Council of Islamic Courts was committed to the peace process if Ethiopia withdrew its troops.

Meanwhile, the government has split over the failure of the last Khartoum meeting. Parliament Speaker Sharif Hassan Sheik Aden bypassed the president and launched his own talks with the Islamic courts. European diplomats hope this effort will lead to another round of peace talks, but the prime minister condemned the move.

Omar Hashi, a member of parliament and an aide to the speaker, said new talks were the priority.

"We have agreed to start discussions on ways of reviving the Khartoum peace negotiations,'' he said Wednesday after a meeting with Islamic leaders.

But if the rains end without a viable peace process in place, the military option could prove irresistible.

Extremists within the Islamic movement have said they do not want peace with a secular government. They demand an Islamic government.

Top Ethiopian officials have told the AP that they have an invasion plan for Somalia ready. They fear the Islamic militias will only grow stronger and become a threat to the entire region if they are not crushed.

A senior U.S. military official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic, said the United States has told Ethiopia to give peace talks a chance. He rejected suggestions that the U.S. wanted Ethiopia to fight the Islamic militia.

In the meantime, the U.N. is predicting that Somalia's rainy season could be longer than normal this year, possibly bringing the worst flooding in 50 years. That may give Somalia's leaders a little more time to find peace.