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Mass Defections Threaten Somalia's Government

Deep divisions within the transitional government of Somalia appear to be worsening, with four more ministers defecting from the administration. International observers fear rising tension in Somalia could engulf the entire region in a war between the Ethiopian backed interim government and Eritrean backed Islamic factions.

The latest resignations from the Baidoa-based government on Thursday, bringing the total number of ministers to defect from Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Ghedi's administration to nearly 40.

Despite the growing crisis in the government, Mr. Ghedi is refusing to resign from his post. Last Saturday he narrowly defeated a vote of no confidence orchestrated by rival ministers. Mr. Ghedi's unwillingness to enter into peace negotiations with Islamic leaders is thought to be the key factor behind the defections. President Abdullahi Yusuf has, however, approved a team of ministers from the government to attend peace talks with the Islamic courts in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum.

Mr. Ghedi's spokesman, Abdurahman Dinari, has told the media that it is the responsibility of the prime minister and not the president to approve any talks. The Arab League, which is mediating the talks, says it is not willing to participate in negotiations unless the government sends a team of representatives who have the full backing of the government.

Islamic leaders have refused to attend negotiations until Ethiopian troops leave the country. Ethiopian forces reportedly entered Somalia last month to protect the interim government from a feared attack by militias loyal to the Islamists.

Ethiopian Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, denies the presence of Ethiopian troops in Somalia. The Eritrean government has rejected claims that their government is supporting Islamists.

Michael Weinstein, an American-based analyst on Somalia, says that Mr. Ghedi looks increasingly isolated and weak. He sees the desertion of President Yusuf as symptomatic of the Islamic courts rapid growth in power.

"The big question is why should Yusuf have made this decision, it seems to me the advance of the courts into the central region, to the northeast coastal region and towards Puntland which is where Yusuf had his original base. Yusuf realizes the courts increasing strength and they may seem to be unstoppable," he said.

On Thursday the United States said it had begun working alongside Britain, Sweden, Norway, Italy and the European Union to try to determine how best to aid the beleaguered government. The global community has called for neighboring Eritrea and Ethiopia to stop interfering in the internal politics of Somalia.

Despite the international pleas, Weinstein says that the fate of the interim government is in the hands of Ethiopia and the Islamic courts.

"The international community is in a similar situation that it seems to be in Lebanon, too divided, too many compromised interests internally, to be able to act effectively," he said.

Islamists took control of Magadishu in early June and have been credited with restoring stability to the capital - the first time since warlords defeated Dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991.