A Somali politician says a major conference has been held in a town near Somalia's border with Kenya and Ethiopia to develop a plan to establish a regional government in southern Somalia. Al-Shabab Islamic militants, who largely control the regions under discussion, have dismissed the conference as a "propaganda stunt."
According to southern Somali politician Aden Mohamed Nur "Saransoor," 200 delegates gathered in the Somali border town of Dolow in the Gedo region three days ago to discuss the way forward for liberating southern Somalia from Islamist radicals and for creating a regional state.
The politician says the objective of the conference was to find a way to establish a semi-autonomous state encompassing six regions - Gedo, Bay, Bakool, Lower and Middle Juba and Lower Shabelle.
Saransoor says delegates at the conference were politicians, clan elders and community leaders from each region. He says a technical committee has been formed to develop a clear plan.
The proposal is not without precedent. In 1998, the northern Somali region of Puntland declared autonomy from south-central Somalia after a series of failed attempts at national reconciliation. Somalia was torn apart by factional fighting after the overthrow of the country's dictator, Mohamed Siad Barre, in 1991.
Observers say if the conference attracted as many delegates as claimed, it underscores the growing sense of frustration among various clan-based communities in southern Somalia. They say some Somalis may be viewing regionalism as a solution to Somalia's problems because they are not convinced the weak U.N.-backed central government in Mogadishu can be counted on to curb radicalism, restore stability in the country, and share resources equitably.
Somalia's transitional government took power in early 2007 after neighboring Ethiopia intervened militarily to oust Islamists from power. Near-daily insurgent attacks have kept the government unable to exert any influence outside of a small area of the capital. The government has also been sharply criticized by Somalis for being corrupt and remaining financially and militarily dependent on the West, Ethiopia, and the African Union.
In 2007 and 2008, al-Shabab, a militant group with ties to al-Qaida, rallied Somalis with calls for nationalism and consolidated vast amount of territory in southern and central Somalia and large areas of Mogadishu. In recent months, al-Qaida-trained foreign militants have reportedly taken over much of the training and operations of the organization. A vicious suicide bombing in Mogadishu earlier this month that killed and wounded 60 people increased fears in Somalia and in the West that the country is on the verge of becoming a significant base for al-Qaida.
On Monday, the information official for al-Shabab in the Juba region, Hassan Yacqub Ali, declared it would be impossible for anyone to challenge al-Shabab's power in southern Somalia. He dismissed the conference in Dolow town as a publicity stunt designed to attract money from the West.