Somalia's beleaguered interim government is backtracking from comments made by the president last week, which appeared to close the door on peace talks with rival Islamists. A spokesman for the deputy prime minister says a dialogue is still possible, but with conditions. VOA Correspondent Alisha Ryu has details from our East Africa Bureau in Nairobi.
In an interview with the Associated Press last Friday, the president of Somalia's interim government, Abdullahi Yusuf, said that the Islamists had declared a war on his secular government and that peace talks to form a unity government were no longer an option.
But a spokesman for Deputy Prime Minister Salim Ali Ibro has told VOA that President Yusuf was still open to renewing a dialogue, which has been stalled since the last round of talks collapsed last month in Khartoum, Sudan.
The previous two rounds in Khartoum produced a mutual recognition agreement and a pledge by the Islamists to halt their expansion in southern and central Somalia.
The government spokesman, who declined to be identified, says the interim government is willing to go back to the negotiating table in Khartoum, but only if the Islamists honor the promises they made in Sudanese capital.
"If the conditions agreed before are not implemented, what is the case then to continue the dialogue? The condition is that they have to go back to their original location," he said.
The original location is a reference to the government's demand that the Islamaists pull back their forces to the capital Mogadishu, which they seized in June after defeating a coalition of factional leaders.
The Islamists, whose leadership the United States believes is now controlled by extremists with ties to al-Qaida, have moved rapidly to consolidate power throughout the country, severely threatening the authority of the internationally recognized-but-weak interim government seated in the town of Baidoa.
Thousands of troops from neighboring Ethiopia are believed to be protecting the government from an Islamist attack. Last week, hard-line leaders of the Islamist movement gave Ethiopia until Tuesday to withdraw their forces from Somalia or face a major assault in Baidoa.
But speaking to reporters Saturday on the sidelines of talks in Yemen with the country's president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, a top moderate official within the Islamic Courts Union, Sheik Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, insisted that the movement wanted to avoid conflict and is prepared for a dialogue with Ethiopia and the interim government.
Somali expert Matt Bryden in Nairobi says despite such positive comments, he believes the leadership of the Islamists and the interim government are far more committed to war than peace.
"They have both been talking about dialogue while making military preparations, expanding militarily on the side of the (Islamic) courts," he said. "And this, in some respects, is more of the same. In the past, the tendency has been for the hardliners on both sides to get their way. So, I think we are pretty much coming to a last gasp of hope for diplomacy before things escalate on the battlefield."
Earlier this month, the United Nations authorized an African peacekeeping force to protect the interim government - a move the Islamists warn will start an all-out regional war.