Nineteen Cabinet ministers in Somalia's fragile secular interim government in Baidoa resigned Thursday, possibly in an attempt to facilitate a power-sharing deal with rival Islamists. Meanwhile, the Islamists strengthened their grip on power, accepting the peaceful surrender of its last rival secular militia in Mogadishu.
The list of those who resigned from Somalia's U.N.-backed but powerless Transitional Federal Government includes seven ministers, seven assistant ministers, and four state ministers.
In a joint letter, the ministers complained that the government lacked transparency and accountability and its leaders had failed to work toward national reconciliation and development since the interim body was formed 19 months ago.
In a clear split with interim government President Abdullahi Yusuf, the ministers said that the government compromised itself by becoming too close to Somalia's much-feared and reviled neighbor Ethiopia. Yusuf asked for Ethiopia's help in dealing with the growing Islamist threat to his government's authority.
The regional power, which is largely Christian, strongly supports secular leaders Yusuf and the prime minister, Ali Mohamed Gedi. Ethiopia is believed to have sent its troops across the border in recent weeks to protect the interim government from a possible attack by fundamentalist Islamic militias, which have vowed to expand their control over all of Somalia after seizing Mogadishu in early June.
Ethiopia's military involvement has been condemned by Islamic leaders in Mogadishu, who say they will not attend a second round of talks with the interim government in Khartoum, Sudan until all Ethiopian soldiers leave Somalia.
Ethiopia says it will defend its interests, no matter what the cost and has accused arch enemy Eritrea of giving arms and training to the Islamists. Addis Ababa says the latest shipment of weapons from Eritrea arrived Wednesday in Mogadishu by plane.
The Bush administration has been urging the main parties in the Somalia conflict to commit to dialogue for a unity government, and is calling on Somalia's neighbors to avoid any actions that might complicate those efforts.
The two Horn of African countries fought a bitter border war from 1998 to 2000. They both have records of backing rebel groups to destabilize each other and Somalis fear their country could be a new front in their conflict.
To entice Islamists back to the negotiating table, lawmakers in Baidoa, where the interim government is based, say a vote of no confidence in Prime Minister Gedi has been presented in parliament for debate on Saturday.
If the vote passes, Somali observers say interim government representatives could offer the key post of prime minister to the Islamists as a move toward bringing them into a formal government and avoiding a major war in the region.
Meanwhile, the Islamists completed their nearly two month-long takeover of the capital, accepting the peaceful surrender of the last rival militiamen and their territory.
Clan militiamen, under the command of current interim interior minister and factional leader Hussein Mohamed Farah Aideed, have held the vast presidential compound, known as Villa Somalia, since the country plunged into lawlessness and factionalism 15 years ago.
In a ceremony at the compound on Thursday, Aideed's representative at Villa Somalia, Abukar Ganay, told Islamic officials that Aideed's Sa'ad clan welcomed the handover of the complex as a symbolic new beginning for the country.
Ganay says the clan decided to hand over the Villa Somalia so that an Islamic court could be established to bring law and order at last to all Somalis.
Last month, Aideed told VOA that he would never surrender Villa Somalia to the Islamists without a fight. The factional leader-turned-politician has not said what made him change his mind.