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Diplomats Urging Somali Factions to Attend Peace Talks


Western analysts and diplomats are urging Somalia's secular interim government in Baidoa and its Islamist rival in Mogadishu not to boycott the next round of peace talks. The talks are scheduled at the end of this month in Khartoum, Sudan.

Observers say they fear rising tensions between Somalia's weak-Ethiopian-backed transitional government and Islamists are quickly reaching a point, where it may be difficult to avert a conflict.

Earlier this month, the Islamists declared war on neighboring Ethiopia, accusing Addis Ababa of sending troops to help government forces briefly seize Buur Hakaba, a town controlled by pro-Islamist fighters.

Since then, there have been reports of clashes between pro-government militias and Islamist fighters in the port city of Kismayo and near Bu'aale, 350 kilometers south of Baidoa, where the interim government is based.

Relations deteriorated further on Sunday, when residents of the southern Somali town of Dinsor reported that well-armed Ethiopian troops, accompanied government forces, briefly took control of that town.

Islamic court leaders in Mogadishu, who took power in the capital from factional leaders four-and-a-half months ago, say the government's military incursions are in violation of a deal reached during an earlier round of peace talks in Khartoum. The deal recognized each other's existence and promised not to make any military moves against one another.

But Nairobi-based regional analyst Matt Bryden says the Islamic courts, accused by Somalia's interim government and Ethiopia of having ties to al-Qaida, have provoked fear by trying to quickly expand their control.

"The courts have been expanding steadily and have also moved their forces in response to the Ethiopian deployment," he said. "So, I think there is a risk now that, as these forces maneuver in closer and closer to one another, that we are going to see an unintentional escalation or maybe even a deliberate provocation from one side or another. There is a real risk of it coming to a head in the immediate future."

Bryden says the only way to resolve the standoff is for the Islamists and interim government officials to re-engage in dialogue at Arab League-sponsored talks in Khartoum.

"I think it is a matter of urgency that the two sides prepare their programs for the next round of peace talks, scheduled for October 30, and on that date, the mediators push for a security protocol that would stipulate the disengagement of forces and some kind of international supervision," he said.

Italy's envoy to Somalia, Mario Rafaelli, says the radicals inside the courts are using the threat of an Ethiopian invasion to strengthen their grip on the Islamic militia.

"You know, the biggest card for the radicals [is] to say that they can be attacked by foreign troops, particularly Ethiopia," he said. "So, of course, the lack of dialogue between the two sides was helpful for these people in order to go on with their agenda. So, there is a need for a dialogue to help the moderates inside [the courts]."

On Sunday, the speaker of parliament in Baidoa, Sharif Hassan Sheikh Adan, resigned as the government's chief negotiator at the talks. Parliament members tell VOA the speaker quit after a long-running feud with Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi, who strongly opposes the talks.

Neither the speaker nor the prime minister could be reached for comment.

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