Somali peace talks adjourned after mortar attack
MOGADISHU (Reuters) - Suspected Islamist rebels fired mortar bombs at the opening ceremony of a Somali peace meeting on Sunday but missed their heavily-guarded target.
President Abdullahi Yusuf was addressing several hundred clan elders, ex-warlords and politicians at a former police compound in northern Mogadishu when the shells fell nearby.
"Anybody who wants to throw things at us, let him go ahead. We will not be cowed. The conference will go ahead," Yusuf said moments before three explosions rumbled in the streets outside.
"Do not fear," Yusuf said, as anxiety spread through the packed hall. "You will only die when your stated time comes."
Islamist insurgents had vowed to attack the meeting. Local media said three civilians were hurt in the mortar blasts, but a senior police commander denied that.
"Three mortars were hurled from very far away," said the officer, who declined to be named. "There were no casualties ... We intend to tighten security even further."
Moments after the blasts, the peace conference was adjourned until Thursday while the organisers waited for more delegates to reach the coastal capital.
Officials said most of the 1,350 invited participants from across the Horn of Africa nation had now arrived for the talks, which have been delayed twice due to security fears.
The conference is seen as the interim government's best hope of securing peace and strengthening its legitimacy.
Yusuf's administration has struggled to impose its authority on the impoverished country since ousting a hardline Islamic Courts movement from Mogadishu in late December.
Government troops and their Ethiopian military allies ringed the venue, searching everyone entering the compound, while soldiers on tanks and trucks fitted with heavy guns looked on.
In the city's sprawling Bakara Market, five government soldiers were wounded along with two civilians when suspected rebels threw two hand grenades at a patrol, witnesses said.
Violence fuelled by bitter clan rivalries has foiled 13 previous attempts to set up central rule in Somalia since dictator Mohamed Siad Barre was overthrown in 1991.
Envoys from several EU member states had planned to attend the opening ceremony, diplomats said, but were unable to when the United Nations cancelled their flight late on Friday.
When the talks get underway properly, they will focus on clan reconciliation, disarmament and sharing natural resources.
In his opening speech, Yusuf promised to set up regional administrations and hold a referendum on a Somali constitution, as well as organise a new national census. Many Somalis say his government should be talking to the insurgents instead.
But many of the delegates already in Mogadishu were upbeat.
"This conference is unique because the majority of Somali clans have been invited," said Ahmed Omar Barow, a 70-year-old elder from Hiran region and father of 21.
"I urge those delegates who have not yet arrived to come so we can start deliberations and forgive each once and for all."
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