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Somali Opposition Factions to Hold Talks in Yemen


Somalia's opposition factions are expected to soon hold face-to-face talks in Yemen. The opposition split over the signing of a controversial peace agreement last month. The talks follow recent comments by the principle Islamist signatory to the agreement who said the opposition will unite against the government if Ethiopian troops do not leave Somalia within four months. VOA correspondent Alisha Ryu reports from our East Africa Bureau in Nairobi.

In a telephone interview from the Somalia opposition group's base in Asmara, Eritrea, Islamist cleric Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys tells VOA that representatives from his faction and allies of Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed have received permission from the Yemeni government to hold direct talks in Sana'a.

Aweys, who is influential among some clan and radical Islamist insurgents in Somalia, says he is not planning to attend the meeting. But he says he is ready to support whatever agreement is reached between the two sides.

The Islamist leader says the opposition Alliance for the Re-liberation of Somalia (ARS) requested the meeting, because there are issues to discuss and Somalis often resolve differences by talking. He says everyone is expected to abide by what the majority decides.

Aweys and other hardliners in the alliance stayed away from U.N.-sponsored peace talks in Djibouti that led to the June 9 signing of an agreement between the more moderate Ahmed and the transitional federal government.

Opposition hardliners rejected the peace deal.

It stipulates that Ethiopian troops, who have backed the Somali transitional government since late 2006, would withdraw within 120 days if a U.N. stabilization force of sufficient strength is in place to replace them. Hardliners argue the agreement should have called for Ethiopians to withdraw immediately. They have threatened to remove Ahmed as chairman of the ARS for participating in the peace process.

U.S.-based Horn of Africa observer and commentator Professor Michael Weinstein says Ahmed has recently made comments that suggested he was eager to prove to Somalis that the opposition alliance is intact and that a clear timetable for an Ethiopian withdrawal has been set.

"He said that we are all on the same page in the ARS. We all want the Ethiopians out. We will liberate by negotiations, but if that does not work, we will rejoin the armed resistance and we are confident that if we liberate by negotiations, the militant faction of the ARS will join us. So it is all depending on 120 days, according to Sheik Sharif," he said.

Weinstein says Ahmed's comments may have helped soothe some of the anger, allowing an opposition reconciliation meeting to take place in Yemen. But he says Ahmed's words are deeply troubling for the international community, which must now find a way to quickly deploy a sizeable stabilization force in Somalia to keep the country from plunging further into violence.

Fighting between insurgents and Ethiopian and government troops for the past 18 months has killed more than 85-hundred people, displaced more than one million others, and has left Somalia in the midst of what the United Nations says is the biggest humanitarian crisis in the world.

Another armed Somali group which boycotted the talks in Djibouti, the Shabab, has not yet commented on the peace deal. Its leaders have long maintained that the Shabab, recently designated as a terrorist group by the United States for having ties to al-Qaida, would continue fighting until all Ethiopians left Somali soil.

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