Divisions within Somalia's Eritrea-based opposition group have turned into an open conflict amid reports the faction headed by hard-line Islamist leader Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys is seeking to remove moderate Islamist Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed as chairman. Aweys supporters say the move is in response to Ahmed's acceptance of U.N. efforts to initiate peace talks with Somalia's Ethiopia-backed interim government. VOA correspondent Alisha Ryu has the story from our East Africa Bureau in Nairobi.
The deputy chairman of the Islamist-led opposition Alliance for the Re-liberation of Somalia, also known as ARS, tells VOA that he and many others in the group are supporting Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys' call to replace the current chairman.
The deputy, Jama'a Mohamed Khalib, says Chairman Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed crossed the line when he sent a delegation to Djibouti earlier this month to participate in the U.N.-mediated peace talks, even though Ethiopia, which many Somalis view as an occupying power, has not withdrawn its troops from Somalia.
The pullout of Ethiopian troops had long been a key ARS condition for the start of any talks with Somalia's secular transitional federal government, which took power from the Islamists in late 2006 after a U.S.-supported Ethiopian military intervention.
Khalib says Ahmed had no right to begin negotiating openly without first forcing the Ethiopians to leave Somalia. Khalib says the opposition general assembly - made up of Islamists, former parliament members and members of the Somali diaspora - will vote on June 15 to remove Ahmed from his post.
Meanwhile, Ahmed and the leader of the ARS general assembly, Sharif Hassan Sheik Adan, are in Yemen, reportedly receiving advice from senior Yemeni officials about how best to proceed toward direct negotiations with the Somali government.
Ahmed declined to speak to VOA about the growing rift within ARS, but earlier this week, Ahmed accused Eritrea of meddling in the group's affairs.
The two top Islamists in ARS, Ahmed and Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys, had an uneasy alliance in the Islamic Courts Union before the movement was ousted after six months in power. The men fled to Eritrea, where they established the opposition group last September. From Asmara, the ARS has led a bloody 16-month, anti-Ethiopian, anti-government insurgency that has killed thousands of people and has displaced more than one million others.
African-analyst Richard Cornwell at South Africa's Institute for Security Studies says he believes it is likely Eritrea is backing Aweys because Asmara, too, opposes any moves to reach a deal with a government backed by Eritrea's bitter rival in the Horn, Ethiopia.
"Eritrea has absolutely no interest in there being a reconciliation between the ARS and the TFG [transitional federal government]. None. The longer it can keep Somalia boiling, the more they like it," said Cornwell.
The temporary chairman of ARS and an ally of Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys, Zakaria Mohamed Haji Abdi, says it is not Eritrea, but the United States and the United Nations that are causing trouble in the region.
"They are trying to divide us," said Abdi. "Whoever accuses Eritrea for interfering in the alliance is lying. It is the only country who supports us in our struggle to re-liberate our country."
Somali media is reporting that Ahmed has moved his faction of the alliance to Djibouti and has no plans to return to Asmara.
It is unclear how the split in the ARS will affect the peace talks, which are due to resume on Saturday.