Islamic leaders have refused to commit to peace talks with the secular interim government of Somalia unless Ethiopian forces pull out of the country. The announcement comes after Somalia's interim government, following meetings with United Nations officials Tuesday, had agreed to attend negotiations. Many in the international community fear another bloody war is about to erupt in the Horn of Africa.
Tension is escalating between the two sides over reports that neighboring Ethiopia has sent troops into Somalia to protect the fragile government from an Islamist takeover. Leader of the Islamic courts, Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys, said Tuesday, that peace talks are out of the question while Ethiopian troops remain in the country.
The first round of peace talks took place last month in Khartoum with both sides signing a mutual recognition agreement. They had promised to meet again July 15. But that meeting was suspended after Islamic militias advanced toward Baidoa, where the transitional federal government (TFG) government is based, and government leaders accused Islamists of trying to take over the town and boycotted the talks.
Analyst Matt Brydon with the Brussels-based International Crisis Group says even if both sides had agreed to talks, they were not likely to be successful.
"As a starting point the core issues, the political issues that separate the courts and the TFG are significant," he said. "There is no cease-fire in place, there is no agreement on the deployment of foreign troops of any kind. The presence of the Ethiopian troops is both a complicating factor because it is a red line that the [Islamic] courts have said they will not back down on they have made very clear they are deeply opposed to the Ethiopian presence. But at the same time it is provides reassurance to the TFG that it is not going to be overrun."
Ethiopia has had a long, bitter history with Somalia. Islamists have long threatened a holy war if Ethiopian troops step foot on Somali soil.
Despite numerous eyewitness reports that thousands of Ethiopian troops are in Baidoa and other parts of Somalia, the Ethiopian government and interim government leaders have dismissed the reports.
But in what appears to be the first acknowledgment of Ethiopia's presence in Somalia, 16 members of the interim parliament signed a petition Monday, urging Ethiopian troops to get out of Somalia immediately.
Matt Brydon, says the announcement is a sign of the growing divisions in the interim government over the backing of Ethiopian forces against Somali Islamists.
"Many lawmakers in Baidoa are uncomfortable with the presence of Ethiopian troops in the town and don't want to be associated with it," he noted. "It undermines their legitimacy in the eyes of their constituents. [It is] a very divisive issue and I think one that does not help the TFG cast itself as a government that is representative of Somalia as a whole."
Largely Christian Ethiopia has said that they will not permit Somalia to become an Islamic theocracy and will back the interim government with force if necessary.