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Somalia Opposition Leader Calls for Removal of AU Peacekeepers

A day after returning to Somalia, the country's most prominent opposition leader called for African Union peacekeepers to leave the country. His comments come as international donors committed over $200 million to supporting security in Somalia, much of it earmarked for the African Union peacekeeping force.

Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, leader of the Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia returned to the country on Thursday after two years in exile in Eritrea. He fled Somalia as Ethiopian troops regained control of the capital from the Islamic Courts Union, the Islamist administration that briefly ran the country in 2006.

Aweys had served alongside Somalia's current president, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, in the Islamic Courts Union, and then in the exile Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia. But that group split into two factions. Sharif signed an agreement with the government last year, and at the end of January, members of his faction joined Somalia's parliament, and Sharif was selected president.

Meanwhile, Aweys, who is on the United States' list of terrorist suspects, has remained in opposition. While President Sharif has succeeded in gaining the backing of some of the Islamic insurgents, others have remained opposed, particularly the radical al-Shabab militia, and Hizbul Islam, a coalition of militias including Aweys' ARS.

Praise for Islamic law

There have been hopes that Aweys' return might lead to reconciliation between the Islamist factions. In his first address since his return, Aweys praised the parliament's recent approval of Islamic law in the country.

But he questioned whether the government will implement Islamic law adequately, given that the government has the support of Ethiopia and the United States.

Aweys also said that African Union peacekeepers should leave the country before negotiations with the government begin. He warned that if the peacekeepers do not leave, they will be targeted by insurgents, just as Ethiopian troops were before.

Insurgents attack peacekeepers

There are about 4,300 peacekeepers from Uganda and Burundi in Mogadishu. They have already become an growing target of attack for insurgents since Ethiopian troops withdrew from the country earlier this year. Many of the government's key backers, including a prominent group of Islamic clerics, while rejecting attacks on the peacekeepers, also want them out.

But the weak government, which controls little more than a few blocks of the capital, also needs foreign backing. On Thursday, President Sharif met donors from the United Nations, European Union and African Union in Brussels, securing pledges of over $200 million to support security in the country. A key component of that effort will be backing the African Union peacekeepers.

In a more promising sign for reconciliation, Aweys also criticized the recent assassinations of leaders of the Islamic Courts Union, which now backs the government.

Meanwhile, fighting continues in other parts of the country. On Thursday, local media reported that al-Shabab retook the central town of Jowlo from a clan-based militia, with five people killed.