Somali leader agrees to reconciliation conference

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia (AP) “” Somalia’s president has agreed to a national reconciliation conference in a bid to end 16 years of anarchy in the war-ravaged country, paving the way for the deployment of African peacekeepers.

After intense pressure from the U.S., EU and U.N. for all-inclusive political talks, President Abdullahi Yusuf said Tuesday his government was willing to negotiate despite stiff opposition from within his own administration. The conference would include former political, religious and clan leaders, Yusuf said.“There is now an opportunity for a breakthrough in political reconciliation in Somalia and for putting in place a genuinely viable government”, he said in a speech to African leaders at the summit.

His call came as an unknown extremist group in Somalia warned it would try to kill any peacekeepers deployed to the country and amid fears that a delay in the force could see Somalia slide back into civil war. In a videotape posted on the official website of Somalia’s routed Islamic movement, a hooded gunman read a statement saying any African peacekeepers would be seen as invaders.

Yusuf’s agreement to national reconciliation was a key component to securing financial and logistical support from the U.S. and EU to help in the deployment of an 8,000-strong African Union peacekeeping force. At stake is $20 million from the EU for a peacekeeping force and $40 million from the U.S.

Speaking to journalists at the African Union summit in Addis Ababa, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the talks must include moderate leaders from the ousted Islamic movement that had threatened to take control of Somalia and had confined the interim government to one farming town.

African governments also want reconciliation talks before they begin deploying troops. Yusuf’s government needs the peacekeepers to help maintain order as Ethiopia, which helps prop up his government, begins withdrawing troops after defeating the rival Islamic movement.

“We would like to negotiate with all Somalis who would like peace, but we cannot negotiate with those who are intent on violence and terrorism,” Yusuf said Tuesday on the sidelines of the summit attended by 35 African leaders.

“The peacekeeping force from the African Union will come soon,” he added.

Fears are mounting that Somalia could again be plunged into civil war without a peacekeeping force or reconciliation talks. Since the Islamic movement was ousted, factional violence has again become a feature of life in the Somali capital, Mogadishu.

In the north of the capital on Tuesday evening, unknown gunmen fired five mortar rounds at an Ethiopian and Somali government base, and the troops returned fire with anti-aircraft guns and machine guns, said Somali businessman Quoje Omar, who witnessed the attack. There was no immediate word of any casualties.

Many senior officials in Yusuf’s administration oppose the talks because they fear their jobs could go to Islamic leaders as a way of winning widespread support for the government. Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi voiced his opposition to such a move late Monday, saying the government was already inclusive and broad-based.

Deputy Defense Minister Salad Ali Jelle said Tuesday the government would crack down on rising unrest in the capital by increasing patrols on the streets and launching attacks against areas believed to be hiding militants from the Islamic movement.

On the final day of the two-day AU summit, African leaders met to try to make up a 4,000 troop shortfall in peacekeepers. So far five nations “” Uganda, Nigeria, Malawi Burundi and Ghana “” have pledged troops, the top U.S. diplomat for Africa, Jendayi Frazer, told reporters at the summit. The peacekeeping agreement calls for an initial deployment of about 2,400 troops.

The U.S. has pledged to offer airlift support to the African force to prevent the routed Islamic movement from taking advantage of the power vacuum created by the withdrawal of Ethiopian forces, Frazer added.

On Monday, Alpha Oumar Konare, the AU’s chief executive, said it was vital more troops were pledged and that they were deployed quickly.

The two-day summit has focused on two of the continent’s thorniest issues, the worsening violence in Sudan’s Darfur region and attempts to restore peace to Somalia.

On Monday, with Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir looking on, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that “the toll of the (Darfur) crisis remains unacceptable,” with more than 200,000 people killed and 2.5 million displaced in four years of fighting. Hours later, in a rebuff to al-Bashir, the African Union chose Ghana to head the 53-member bloc, turning aside Sudan’s bid for the post for the second year in a row.



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