Reports from Somalia indicate embattled Prime Minister Nur Hassan Hussein has begun an effort to disarm militiamen loyal to some of the country's most powerful officials, including the mayor of Mogadishu. As VOA correspondent Alisha Ryu reports from our East Africa Bureau in Nairobi, forces loyal to the officials are accused of committing crimes and atrocities against Somali civilians that have fueled anti-Ethiopian and anti-government sentiment in the country.
According to the Somali website Garowe Online and VOA sources in Somalia, Prime Minister Hussein has asked the powerful mayor of Mogadishu, Mohamed Dheere, to surrender his weapons to Somalia's transitional federal government.
Mr. Hussein also reportedly wants to disarm the national police chief, Abdi Qeybdid, and the head of national intelligence Mohamed Darwish.
The three officials are former factional leaders in the U.N.-recognized interim government, which came to power in early 2007 on the back of an Ethiopia-led military intervention to end the rule of Somali Islamists.
Despite international calls for all factional leaders and their militias to be disarmed before joining the government, many kept their weapons and some of their militias were subsequently absorbed into the government's national security forces.
Ordinary Somalis have long complained that militia members remained loyal to their leaders and not to the interim government. Human rights groups have accused government troops and policemen of using their weapons to kill, rape, and rob civilians at will.
Such acts have fueled resentment and hatred for the Ethiopia-backed interim government and have mobilized entire communities to support Islamist-led insurgents, who have waged a 16-month guerrilla war to overthrow the government and to force an Ethiopian withdrawal from Somalia.
Somali interim Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Information, Ahmed Abdi Salam Aden, would not comment on specific details of the prime minister's disarmament measure. But he confirms that Mr. Hussein, who is one of the few top government officials with no ties to Somali factions, is pursing a plan that began earlier this month with the surrender of arms belonging to Mr. Hussein's predecessor, Ali Mohamed Gedi.
"Our response is to first bring all of those militias together into a single, unified national force whereby the forces are a national army rather than clan militia or warlord militia identified with a specific region or a specific person," said Aden.
The officials the prime minister wants to disarm are politically allied with another former factional leader, interim President Abdullahi Yusuf - a hard-line secularist who has long enjoyed support from Ethiopia.
Sources in Somalia tell VOA that in recent weeks, Ethiopian officials have begun cautiously backing Prime Minister Hussein's initiatives including the disarmament plan and efforts to begin peace talks with Islamist and other opposition groups. Both initiatives are reportedly opposed by President Yusuf.
An independent U.S.-based Horn of Africa analyst Michael Weinstein says Ethiopia is believed to be backing Mr. Hussein because Addis Ababa views the proposals as steps that could help drain support for the country's growing Islamist-led insurgency.
"I think the Ethiopians are genuinely switching sides now because it needs an exit strategy," said Weinstein. "They are not getting an African Union peacekeeping mission of anywhere near sufficient strength. The United Nations says it is going to be month, if at all, before there is even a replacement peacekeeping force."
The fighting in Mogadishu has killed thousands of people and has displaced more than one million others. In recent months, insurgents have expanded their operations outside the capital and have seized several towns in central Somalia.