By GULED MOHAMED, REUTERS, MOGADISHU, Somalia
Somalia’s interim government on July 14 decided to boycott peace talks due in Sudan this weekend in protest at alleged ceasefire violations by Islamist rivals who threaten the administration’s limited power.
The move was a setback to diplomatic efforts to avert war between the Western-backed government, based in a provincial town, and Islamists who took the capital and a swathe of southern Somalia from U.S.-backed warlords last month.
"We will not meet with anybody who continues to break the agreement. They should justify why they violated the previous agreement," President Abdullahi Yusuf said in an address to parliament broadcast over the radio.
Yusuf, speaking from the government’s base in Baidoa, was referring to a pact the two sides signed to end military campaigns, at the first round of Arab League-brokered talks in Sudan on June 22.
The government says the Islamists’ subsequent pushes against the remaining warlords around Mogadishu, and their announcement of a parallel national administration, broke the accord.
"We recognize they exist. We cannot ignore them? Do they recognize our government and our charter?" Yusuf said.
The Islamists, led by hardline cleric Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, this week have been mopping up remnants of pro-warlord militias in what they say is a move to ensure peace.
Even though the government will not go to Sudan, an Arab League envoy flew into Mogadishu’s ravaged international airport -- the first plane to land there since it was closed 11 years ago -- to take Islamist delegates there.
"These people have been privately invited by (Sudanese) President Omar al-Bashir. I’m here to pick them up," league envoy Abdallah Mubarak al-Araimi said.
The Islamists say they are ready to talk, but had no immediate reaction to Yusuf’s comments.
In Brussels, the EU Commission said it would host talks on Somalia on Monday, with U.S., EU, African Union and Arab League officials expected to participate in the meeting of the International Contact Group on Somalia.
’A REAL BLOW’
Tightening their grip on the capital, the Islamists this week took over the airport and seaport -- both closed and looted bare since U.S. and U.N peacekeepers pulled out in 1995.
The Islamists’ rise has challenged the authority of the government, which is not strong enough to move to Mogadishu.
Anarchic Somalia has been without central rule since 1991, when warlords overthrew dictator Mohamed Siad Barre.
Ethiopian troops have crossed into Somalia to back the government, various sources said on July 13, increasing fears of a wider conflict the talks on Saturday were aimed at defusing.
"It’s a real blow that they’re not even going to meet each other," a Western diplomat said. "What’s crucial now is to find out if they are going to meet at a later date, or if the negotiations are off altogether."
Yusuf’s government is wary of the Islamists’ plan to impose strict sharia law in the nation of 10 million.
Another major sticking point is the government’s request for foreign peacekeepers to help boost its authority, something the Islamists reject.
"For me to be asked not to bring foreign troops and on the other hand they brought foreign troops to fight alongside them is not acceptable," Yusuf said, referring to charges the Islamists had foreign help, which they deny.
On July 13, the U.N. Security Council expressed for the first time willingness to consider the long-delayed deployment.