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Somalia Reconciliation Talks Break Down

U.N.-sponsored talks in Djibouti aimed at starting a reconciliation process between Somalia's secular government and Islamist-led rivals ended last week without a breakthrough. A political reconciliation is considered key to restoring stability in the war-ravaged nation. But as VOA Correspondent Alisha Ryu reports from our East Africa Bureau in Nairobi, growing divisions within the warring parties are complicating peace efforts as Somalia continues to sink deeper into an unprecedented humanitarian crisis.

The United Nation's envoy to Somalia, Mauritanian diplomat Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, had hoped that the meeting in Djibouti, which began on May 12, would produce the first direct talks between the leaders of Somalia's transitional federal government, and an Eritrea-based opposition alliance, since the country plunged into war 16 months ago.

But the talks ended four days later with no more than a tentative agreement by both sides to improve humanitarian access to Somalia's needy population and to resume negotiations on May 31.

An African expert at South Africa's Institute for Security Studies, Richard Cornwell, says while Mr. Ould-Abdallah's efforts should be applauded, he believes the talks have little chance of producing any substantive agreements. "I think he has done an excellent job. I mean, he has actually got people talking who were not talking before. But the problem is nobody is going to put money behind it. Nobody is really going to push this, I don't think, because nobody really believes it is going to work," he said.

An African policy advisor at the Washington-based Enough Project, Colin Thomas-Jensen agrees that the Djibouti talks are not likely to succeed because he says key players in the Somali crisis, namely the United States and Ethiopia, are not fully engaged in the process, noting that both countries have committed acts in Somalia that have heightened tensions between the government and opposition groups.

Somalis have long accused Ethiopian troops in Somalia of committing atrocities against civilians during military operations. The United States is accused of killing innocent Somalis in recent air strikes aimed at killing al-Qaida-linked terror suspects.

"The United Nations comes to the table with not a whole lot of leverage. The actors on the ground, all of them heavily armed factions fighting it out for territory and control of Somalia, are not going to listen to a diplomat from Mauritania telling them what to do. The prospects of peace talks in the absence of a leverage exerted by Ethiopia, the United States, are quite poor," said Thomas-Jensen.

Another major obstacle to the talks is the growing divisions in Somalia's U.N.-backed-but-unpopular interim government and in the Islamist-led opposition group, known as the Alliance for the Re-liberation of Somalia.

In the transitional federal government, Somalia's powerful interim President Abdullahi Yusuf largely opposes peace talks and favors a military solution. Prime Minister Nur Hassan Hussein wants direct talks with opposition groups to reach a political reconciliation.

On the opposition side, hard-line Islamists are harshly criticizing alliance members who agreed to participate in the Djibouti talks, insisting that they were not consulted. A senior Islamist leader in the alliance, Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys, called the peace process a waste of time.

Since the opposition alliance was formed in Asmara in September, 2007, it has been represented by top figures in Somalia's Islamic Courts Union. They fled to Eritrea after neighboring Ethiopia, with U.S. support, launched a military campaign to oust the Islamists from power in late 2006 and install a secular government in their place.

The main leaders of the Islamic courts - hardliner Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys and the more moderate Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed - struggled with political differences when they shared power in Mogadishu. But in Eritrea, they found common ground in their vehement opposition to the presence of Ethiopian troops in Somalia and in their belief that waging a violent insurgency was the only way to defeat the Ethiopians and overthrow the transitional federal government.

It is widely believed that Aweys, who once led a Somali group on the U.S. list of terrorist organizations, has been backing the activities of the Shabab terrorist group in Somalia while Ahmed has backed the insurgency being waged by nationalist fighters loyal to the Islamic Courts Union.

The opposition alliance had repeatedly refused to negotiate for any peace settlement until Ethiopian troops left Somalia. But in April, Sheik Sharif Ahmed agreed to open dialogue through a third party, raising hopes that an agreement could be reached to end the insurgency and bring home an estimated one million displaced people facing starvation in camps.

Nearly two million other Somalis, affected by drought, hyperinflation, and rising crime are also said to be in need of immediate humanitarian assistance. Colin Thomas-Jensen predicts, in the absence of political and economic solutions, the humanitarian situation is likely to grow far worse.

"We are seeing and it has been described by many observers as a perfect storm. You have massive displacement. You have food prices as high as they have been in 30 years. And on top of that conflict and very limited humanitarian access to the most vulnerable population, who are really exhausting all of their coping mechanisms. So, the possibility for famine is quite high. The similarities in that respect to the early 1990s are striking. However, I think this time around, it is extremely unlikely, if not impossible, to imagine that the international community would mount some sort of an armed humanitarian intervention," he said.

Following the overthrow of Somali dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991, about 1 1/2 million people were displaced by war and hundreds of thousands starved to death.

A multi-national U.N. relief effort, led by the United States, was launched to aid the Somali people. But the humanitarian mission ended in disaster, when gunmen shot down two American helicopters and killed 18 U.S. soldiers in 1993.