July 25, 2007 / 4:27 PM / 11 years ago

Somali peace talks open to Islamists and insurgents

MOGADISHU (Reuters) - The leaders of Somalia’s national reconciliation conference on Wednesday opened up the talks to Islamists, members of a rival peace meeting in Asmara and even insurgents targeting the conference venue in Mogadishu.

By allowing the dissident groups in, conference organisers appeared to be trying to give the meeting wider inclusiveness urged by international donors.

“The Islamic Courts, the renegade legislators in Asmara and those who are behind the explosions in Mogadishu can attend the conference,” deputy conference chairman Abdirahman Abdi Hussein told elders at the meeting in the Somali capital.

Hussein also said “politics are on the agenda”.

The interim government had initially said the meeting would not discuss sharing political posts and that Islamist leaders were welcome only as representatives of their clans.

Although the conference organising committee is independent, several critics have said the government still controls it.

The government set up the conference under heavy international pressure, in what diplomats say is its last best hope of gaining legitimacy and trying to secure peace amid a persistent insurgency that has targeted the venue.

Militant Islamists are suspected of being behind the attacks, while political leaders from the Somalia Islamic Courts Council (SICC) have said they want no part of the talks until Ethiopian troops allied with the government withdraw.

The SICC leaders, along with Somali nationalists from the diaspora and several parliamentarians who are angry with the government and have set up what they bill as separate peace talks in the Eritrean capital Asmara.

“We ask Sheikh Sharif Ahmed and Abdullahi Adow to attend the talks. We promise them security and transportation. We are ready to even meet them anywhere,” Hussein said, referring to two former SICC leaders now in Asmara.

It was not immediately clear whether the SICC leaders and members of the rival meeting in Eritrea would take up the offer. The SICC in the past has said it will not attend any talks until Ethiopian troops leave.

Eritrea is the arch-rival to Ethiopia, and diplomats say the two have been waging a proxy war inside Somalia since at least last year when Asmara backed the SICC against the interim government backed by Addis Ababa.

Since the reconciliation meeting opened on July 15, rebels have kept up an unrelenting wave of hit-and-run attacks on government soldiers and their Ethiopian allies, and have fired mortar bombs at the venue — including on the opening day.

Though none have hit the former police compound serving as the conference site, the violence has sent at least 10,000 people fleeing the city in the last week, according to the United Nations.

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