The feuding leaders of Somalia's transitional government are deadlocked in a dispute over cabinet appointments as Islamist rebel forces advance to within striking distance of the capital, Mogadishu. VOA correspondent Peter Heinlein reports from Addis Ababa, where Somalia's president and prime minister met Ethiopian officials for urgent talks how to settle political differences and meet the rebel challenge.
Somali President Abdullahi Yusuf and Prime Minister Nur Hassan Hussein met Friday with Ethiopian Foreign Minister Seyoum Mesfin for what were described as frank talks.
Sources close to the meeting said Ethiopian officials urged the two Somali leaders to settle a political dispute over cabinet posts. But at the end of the day, those sources said neither President Yusuf or Prime Minister Hussein was willing to yield. Both men left later in the day for Nairobi, where discussions are said to be continuing on formation of a new government of national unity to replace the embattled Transitional Federal Government, which holds power mostly in name only.
Amid the political wrangling in the Ethiopian and Kenyan capitals, reports from inside Somalia indicate fighters from the extremist al-Shabab are advancing on the Somali capital, Mogadishu. Shabab forces met no resistance this week when they moved into the key port of Marka, less than 100 kilometers south of the capital. News reports said they immediately imposed strict Islamic law.
Ethiopian and Somali officials in Addis Ababa, however, downplayed the significance of al-Shabab's advance. Somalia's former ambassador to Ethiopia and the African Union Abdi Kareem Farah, who is playing a key role in political negotiations, told VOA the areas taken by al-Shabab had not previously been under TFG control.
"Of course we can say they are advancing toward Mogadishu, its quite true, but the areas they are capturing now is not under the TFG, only Marka, where the capital city of lower Shabelle, at one point the TFG appointed administration, but that administration dissolved by itself and the people four months ago," he said.
Farah admits the feuding leaders are in his words "stuck" in their efforts to settle their political dispute, as they had agreed to do in a deal struck through the east African regional grouping IGAD. He said it may be necessary to put aside the disagreement about cabinet posts and proceed directly to the formation of a successor government of national unity, which would include the opposition Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia, or ARS.
Farah said this is an issue on which Prime Minister Hussein, better known as Nur Adde, and President Yusuf agree.
"Nur Adde is the one who started these negotiation. He is serious about it and will continue to finish it. Abdullahi Yusuf and parliament also welcome that. And that is the Unity govt. maybe under Yusuf, or Nur Adde or maybe a complete new leadership," said Farah.
Ethiopian foreign ministry spokesman Wahde Belay expressed regret at the lack of progress in settling Somalia's political dispute, and said it could have a bearing on Ethiopia's decision whether to withdraw its troops from Somalia in line with last month's Djibouti accord. Wahde said Ethiopia remains committed to a withdrawal timetable beginning this month, but noted that he could not predict what might happen in the future.
As he spoke, news agency reports said Somali government troops were massing at a key checkpoint south of Mogadishu where rebel forces are said to have advanced to within a few kilometers of the city.