The mediator heading peace talks to end more than a decade of anarchy in Somalia has denied that the talks are near collapse. His comments follow reports of mounting tensions in the region. A monitoring team will visit the Somali capital, Mogadishu, within the next two weeks to investigate cease-fire violations.
The chairman of the Somali peace and reconciliation talks, Bethwell Kiplagat, says he met with the prime minister of Somalia's transitional national government (TNG), Hasan Abshir Farah, Thursday, and was assured the TNG is not about to pull out of the talks.
"I am optimistic," said Mr. Kiplagat. "Today, the prime minister of TNG arrived back from a trip abroad where he had gone for medical treatment. He came with his whole team and they have assured me, we've just had very very productive discussions. He was a bit anxious that this thing is dragging on but when I presented to him the road map we have worked on, I think he is quite satisfied. So, they are here."
On Tuesday, the acting head of the TNG's delegation, Muhammad Abdi Yusuf, said the government was pulling out of the talks, because Ethiopia had occupied parts of northern Somalia and was massing more troops along the border.
Ethiopia has denied the claim. But it acknowledges that it has in the past sent troops into Somalia to attack members of the Islamist al-Ittihad group, which the United States believes is linked with Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network.
Ethiopia, Djibouti and the conference's host, Kenya, are part of the regional Inter-Governmental Authority on Development technical committee which is mediating the Somalia talks.
The dispute between Somalia's TNG and Ethiopia this week added to speculation that the Somali peace talks are on the verge of collapse.
For the last six months, there have been lengthy arguments over representation for more than a dozen Somali factions, as well as serious problems finding money to pay for the talks.
Several faction leaders have given up and gone back home to Somalia.
In the last month, there have been widespread violations of a cease-fire agreement signed last October. The most serious fighting has been in the Somali capital, Mogadishu.
In response, the committee organizing the talks established a committee to monitor cease-fire violations.
The peace talks' chairman, Mr. Kiplagat, says the committee will be sending a fact finding mission to Mogadishu in the next two weeks, in what he hopes will be a precursor to setting up a permanent monitoring team.
"We are planning to send a delegation to Mogadishu," said Mr. Kiplagat. "We are also working on smart sanctions, I don't know what they will look like but this is what we are trying to do. And lastly, to have a permanent monitoring team. You see, it is no use simply issuing or signing a cease-fire agreement. You have to implement it and give it teeth. And that requires the presence of monitors on the ground."
Smart sanctions, including banning international travel by faction leaders who violate the cease-fire, and seizing their financial assets, would need legal backing from the United Nations.
There have been more than a dozen failed Somali reconciliation conferences since its government collapsed in 1991 with the overthrow of President Mohammed Siad Barre.
Last month, Mr. Kiplagat, a widely respected former diplomat, took over the chairmanship of the talks. He moved them from the Kenyan town of Eldoret to the capital, Nairobi, a move which has reduced operating costs by 60 percent.