Somalia's interim government to boycott peace talks

Saturday, July 15, 2006

MOGADISHU, Somalia -- Somalia's nearly powerless government said Friday it would boycott peace talks with an Islamic militia that has seized control of most of the country's south, noting the group wanted to topple the leadership and had massacred civilians.

The boycott was the latest setback in a swiftly deteriorating relationship between the internationally recognized government and the radical militia, which the United States accuses of harboring al-Qaida and wanting to impose a Taliban-style theocracy.

"The Islamic group has extreme views which cannot go with the world's civilized and democratic system," government minister Ismail Mohamud Hurreh said on the eve of today's talks in Khartoum, Sudan, under the auspices of the Arab League.

Abdallah Mubarak, the Arab League's special envoy to Somalia, said peace talks would take place at a date to be determined, but that Sudan's president would talk with the Islamic leaders today.

The Supreme Islamic Courts Council sent negotiators to Khartoum despite the boycott by the government, which was formed with the help of the United Nations but wields no real power outside its base in Baidoa, 150 miles northwest of Mogadishu.

"If the transitional government doesn't come, then the international community will see who wants peace in Somalia and who doesn't," said Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, a top Islamic official.

The Islamic militia wrested Mogadishu from a secular alliance of warlords last month, bringing weeks of relative calm to a capital that has seen little more than chaos since the last effective central government was overthrown in 1991.

But the group soon showed a more radical side, establishing strict courts based on the Quran and replacing a moderate who had been its main leader with Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys, whom the United States has linked to Osama bin Laden's terrorist organization. Aweys denies the allegations.

The group also quashed resistance in Mogadishu, culminating in two days of fighting this week that killed 70 people and wounded more than 100, many of them civilians. The opposing fighters were loyal to a warlord who had refused to disarm.

"The militia massacred civilians and government supporters during their latest fighting in Mogadishu," President Abdullahi Yusuf said. He added that the militia wants to capture "the whole country, region by region," including the government seat of Baidoa.

On Thursday, the U.N. Security Council said it is willing to consider easing an arms embargo so the transitional government can develop a security force. The government says the Islamic militia boosts its ranks with foreign Arab soldiers.

"While the Islamic militants have their own foreign fighters, I think we have a right to have forces from our own foreign friends to help us restore peace and stability and the implementation of the national institutions," Yusuf said.

Somalia has been without an effective government since warlords overthrew its longtime dictator in 1991 and divided the nation into fiefdoms. The Islamic fundamentalists stepped into the vacuum as an alternative military and political power.

U.S. officials had cooperated with the warlords, hoping to capture three al-Qaida leaders allegedly protected by the Islamic council who are accused in the deadly 1998 bombings at the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

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