Despite escalating insurgent violence in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, the country's transitional government says the much-delayed national reconciliation conference to end the country's 16-year-old civil war will begin on Sunday as scheduled. But as VOA Correspondent Alisha Ryu in our East Africa Bureau in Nairobi reports, only a small fraction of the 1,300 invited delegates are likely to attend.
Italy's Special Envoy to Somalia, Mario Raffaelli, tells VOA that leaders of Somalia's western-backed interim government have assured him and other European Union diplomats that the reconciliation conference will not be delayed a fourth time.
Raffaelli was among a group of EU diplomats who visited the restive Somali capital on Wednesday. The group, led by the EU special envoy to Somalia Georges-Marc Andre, held private talks with interim President Abdullahi Yusuf, conference organizers, and several pro-government elders of the city's dominant but highly divided Hawiye clan.
"They told us that, definitely, they want to start on Sunday with the opening ceremony, and the conference will go on, even if not all of the delegates are in town," said Raffaelli. "According to them, almost 800 delegates are already in Mogadishu. Two hundred or 300 are supposed to come today and tomorrow."
But many Somalis in the capital remain skeptical of government claims that hundreds of clan elders, factional leaders, and politicians invited from across Somalia are in the city now.
Workers at Mogadishu's main airport say they have not seen large delegations arriving in recent days. Owners of several major hotels in Mogadishu say their establishments are virtually empty.
Delegates in the war-ravaged city would require the protection of Somali and Ethiopian soldiers, who are the targets of daily grenade and roadside bomb attacks.
Insecurity in the capital delayed the reconciliation talks in April and then again in May. Conference organizers reduced the number of invited delegates from 3,000 to 1,300 and last month, they delayed the talks for a third time, saying the reconciliation process lacked international funding.
The insurgents are largely remnants of the Islamist movement defeated in an Ethiopia-led offensive in late December as well as Hawiye sub-clan members, who feel marginalized by the interim government's factional leaders.
Hours after the EU diplomats left Mogadishu, insurgents fired mortars at the presidential palace and at the bullet-scarred conference site, where workers were repairing the roof and installing new windows.
For the sixth straight day, explosions have ripped through Mogadishu's famed Bakara Market, where Somali and Ethiopian troops have been hunting for insurgents and illegal weapons. Somali residents say the troops have spent more time looting businesses than protecting citizens.
Somalis say the market, like most of the city, has been shut down and under an unofficial, 24-hour curfew.