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UN's Top Somalia Envoy Hopeful Peace Talks Will Resume


The United Nation's envoy to Somalia says Thursday's deadly suicide car bombings near the town of Baidoa, where the country's besieged interim government is based and the only town it controls, have not dampened hopes for the resumption of stalled peace talks between the government and Somali Islamists. VOA Correspondent Alisha Ryu reports from our East Africa Bureau in Nairobi.

Authorities in Baidoa on Friday tightened security and arrested several people suspected of being involved in Thursday's suicide attack, which the interim government says was carried out by al-Qaida fighters or radical supporters of the powerful Mogadishu-based Islamist movement.

The U.N. envoy to Somalia, Francois Fall, tells VOA that he is dismayed by the incident, which has heightened fears that Somalia is firmly headed toward an all-out war between the secular Ethiopian-supported government and the Somali Islamic Courts Union, whose leadership is accused of having ties to al-Qaida and other terrorist groups.

"I am very concerned about this kind of attack because this is the second time in Baidoa and we do not know exactly who committed that [act]," he said. "We did not get an official confirmation that the courts assumed responsibility of the attack."

Somalia's first-ever suicide bombing occurred in Baidoa three months ago, when a car exploded near the convoy of interim President Abdullahi Yusuf. The leader escaped but several people in his entourage were killed. No one claimed responsibility for the attack.

There are conflicting reports about what exactly happened on Thursday at a checkpoint, five kilometers outside Baidoa. One government official says a woman wearing a veil and two other people blew up their cars as police tried to inspect their vehicles. Other witnesses say only one car exploded and the force of the blast destroyed two other cars waiting behind it.

The blasts killed nearly a dozen people, including unconfirmed reports that foreigners were among the dead.

Islamist officials in Mogadishu, whom the government blamed for the bombing in September, denied they were behind the attack on Thursday. But Islamist commanders have reportedly said the suicide bombers were targeting an Ethiopian military position in Baidoa.

Two months ago, Islamist leaders declared a holy war on neighboring Ethiopia, whom they accuse of sending thousands of troops across the border to prop up the weak interim government. Ethiopia says it has sent several hundred military advisors to Baidoa, but denies the presence of thousands of troops.

Thursday's bombings came just hours after Ethiopia's parliament adopted a resolution that called the Islamists a "clear and present danger" to Ethiopia and gave Prime Minister Meles Zenawi the authority to take any legal means to combat the threat.

But Francois Fall says he and other diplomats still believe there is a chance for all sides to calm down and resume peace talks at the end of this month in Sudan.

"We are talking to the government," he added. "We are now in touch with the courts in Mogadishu and there are some other initiatives on the ground. All of us, we are working with the Arab League to enter in some meaningful dialogue because we believe dialogue is the key to security and power-sharing."

The Islamists have rapidly gained power and territory since they seized the capital Mogadishu in June, threatening the interim government's authority. Two previous Arab League-mediated peace talks in Khartoum failed to halt escalating tension between the two sides. A third scheduled round of talks never took place.

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