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Somali Leaders Open Eritrea Conference

Leaders from diverse groups in Somalia launched a 10-day conference in Eritrea Thursday to discuss how to end the chaos in Somalia and force Ethiopian troops to pull out. Nick Wadhams has more from our East Africa bureau in Nairobi.

The conference in Eritrea's capital, Asmara, opened with an immediate demand that Ethiopia withdraw its troops from Somalia, which they invaded in December.

Organizers said 450 delegates attended the first day, including Sheikh Hassan Aweys, the leader of the Islamic Courts Union.

The group had taken control of much of Somalia before Ethiopia, backed by the U.S. government, ousted its forces in a quick campaign. In the months since, the Ethiopian forces and soldiers with Somalia's transitional government have been unable to bring peace to the capital.

The organizers say they want to create a political group that will bring peace to Somalia. The country last saw stability more than 15 years ago, before dictator Mohammed Siad Barre was ousted in a coup.

"We are expecting to bring up to the end of the conference a program that not only deals with the Ethiopian invasion, but also a program that brings solution to the everlasting civil war that has been occurring in our country for the last 15 years," said Mahad Sheikh, one of the organizers of the meeting. "So we are expecting success and to bring change to Somalia."

The meeting saw strong criticism directed at the United States, Ethiopia's most important ally. Aweys warned that Somalia's neighbors risk destabilization because of its conflict, and called the U.S. policy toward Somalia strangely confrontational.

Aweys asked that the United States play a more positive role in the conflict. Aweys and several other members of the Islamic Courts Union are suspected of links to al-Qaida.

Last week, another conference was held in Mogadishu, sponsored by the transitional government and international groups. Islamists refused to attend that meeting, saying Ethiopian troops must withdraw first.