The Somali government said Monday that it has opened conciliatory talks with United Arab Emirates leaders on Monday, a day after the UAE said it would disband a training program for Somali military forces in the East African country.
The talks aim to resolve a diplomatic spat after Somali security forces seized three bags of cash from a UAE-registered civil aircraft at Mogadishu's Airport on April 8.
The United Arab Emirates said the $9.6 million was intended to cover the salaries of 2,407 Somali soldiers and to run three training centers. The UAE did not name the three, believed to be located in Mogadishu, Bosaso and Kismayo, where a newly built center has not been officially inaugurated.
The Somali government had said the money was being held in the central bank pending an investigation into whether it was actually to pay soldiers or to bribe politicians to "destabilize" the country.
Somali Foreign Minister Ahmed Isse Awad told VOA Somali that talks have begun "between the top leadership from the two countries and are progressing well." He did not elaborate on the venue or format, but said no third country was mediating.
Somalia's foreign ministry says the Somali government "has sought to clarify facts surrounding recent developments in order to remove any room for misunderstanding between the two governments and peoples. This effort continues.”
The ministry statement confirmed “lengthy deliberations," adding that "the UAE has explained the purpose and the utilization of the said funds and the federal government will work together with the UAE on their utilization.”
As of Monday afternoon, VOA had not been able to confirm negotiations with the UAE's ambassador to Somalia, Mohammed Ahmed Othman Al Hammadi.
Military training threatened
Somalia took this softer stance just hours after the United Arab Emirates announced that it would disband its Somali military training program, started in 2014.
"The UAE has expressed its denunciation of the seizure incident, which flies in the face of diplomatic traditions and ties between world countries and contravenes the agreements signed by both countries," read Sunday's statement from the UAE capital, Abu Dhabi.
Before the UAE announcement, Somalia's defense minister told state media that the government no longer would accept UAE funding for the Somali forces. Mohamed Mursal Sheikh Abdirahman also said that troops trained by UAE would be merged with other divisions.
On Saturday, the UAE evacuated dozens of trainers from Somalia's coastal city of Bosaso, where they have been training Puntland regional maritime police forces. A source to close to the UAE Embassy in Mogadishu said the number of trainers was reduced but did not say how many remained.
Somali regional leader Abdiweli Mohamed Ali told VOA he has requested continued UAE training support.
Questions about cash
Somali officials initially rejected the UAE's explanation for the plane carrying unmarked bags of cash. They blamed the UAE ambassador, Al Hammadi, who was at the airport to receive the money.
"The ambassador refused [to let] the bags to be examined with metal detectors, electronic scanning or canine sniffing without opening or detaining the bag, which was a simple solution to the problem," a Somali official told VOA Somali.
Somalia denied it violated international diplomatic norms in seizing the money.
"If a 'diplomatic bag' is used to deliver illegal articles such as weapons [or] cash, then the bag is violable," said a senior government official, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
UAE officials argued that Somali officials knew the money was coming.
Gen. Abdiweli Jama Gorod, Somali National Army commander, told VOA Somali that he was approached by UAE officials on the day the money arrived in Mogadishu and asked to write a letter to the airport manager requesting the money's release to UAE.
But Gorod said he was not told the amount of money. He said he told UAE officials to accept a bag search.
Discrepancies in the money's sourcing also raised Somali officials' suspicions at the airport, VOA has learned.
Gorod's letter, obtained by VOA Somali, said the money was coming from Bosaso in Puntland, where UAE has been running a training camp. But Somali aviation officials said the plane came directly from the UAE.
A second letter, obtained by VOA Somali and dated April 5, informed the Somali national army about the money. It indicated that $6 million was allocated for the Mogadishu training center, with the remaining $3.6 million was intended for the Bosaso training center.
Relations between Somalia and the UAE have worsened since Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed's administration resisted pressure to cut ties with Qatar and took a neutral position on a dispute between Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
Last month, the Somali government rejected an agreement between the UAE's Dubai World, Somaliland and Ethiopia over Berbera port, claiming the deal "violates the territorial integrity of Somalia."
The Somali Service's Falastine Iman contributed to this report.