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Contact Group Urges Unrestricted Access for Somali Aid


A new international Contact Group on Somalia Thursday urged unrestricted access of humanitarian aid to the war-torn country, and dialogue and reconciliation among Somali factions. The U.S.-organized group held its first meeting in New York.

The Contact Group says there are no easy answers for Somalia, which has been without a functioning central government for 15 years.

But it is pledging to try to work with all the country's factions to strengthen its shaky transitional government and facilitate humanitarian relief.

The United States organized the New York meeting only days after Somalia's long-running civil conflict took a new turn with the capture of the capital Mogadishu and other areas by a militant Muslim faction, the Islamic Courts Union.

The Islamic Courts Union had accused the United States of backing its battlefield rival, an alliance of secular warlords, but it has nonetheless reached out to Washington and other western governments, saying it does not want to be considered an enemy.

The initial Contact Group meeting, at Norway's U.N. mission, included diplomats from the United States, Norway, Italy, Sweden, Britain, Tanzania and the European Union, with the United Nations and African Union taking part as observers.

Its communiqué did not mention the Islamic Courts Union by name. But it said it would work with the United Nations and African regional organizations to encourage dialogue and reconciliation between the Transitional Federal Government and all Somali parties.

In a talk with reporters, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer said the Contact Group wants to see as first priorities an end to the factional warfare and talks between the Islamic Courts Union and the U.N.-backed transitional administration based in the southwestern town of Baidoa. "Our immediate and most important message today is that there should be no fighting in Somalia. It has to end. And that the transitional federal institutions and the Islamic Courts should immediately enter into a dialogue to provide security and stability, both for the people of Somalia but for their neighbors as well," he said.

Frazer said the Contact Group members discussed coordinating their policies to support regional stability so that Somalia is no longer, in her words, an "exporter of criminality and a threat of terror" to neighboring states.

Though the Islamic Courts Union has disavowed any links to terrorism, Bush administration officials allege that al-Qaida has a cell of operatives in areas under its control, including suspects in the 1998 truck bombings of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam.

The Contact Group set no date for its next meeting, but said it may broaden its membership and that the Arab League and the East African regional grouping, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, will be invited to participate as observers.

The central government in Somalia broke apart amid factional warfare in 1991. The transitional administration, formerly based in Kenya, moved to Baidoa in 2004 but has not been able to assert control beyond that.