Somali MP, Islamists sign deal

MOGADISHU (AP) — A Somali lawmaker bypassed the government and signed an agreement Saturday to end hostilities with the country’s powerful Islamic Courts, a symbolic gesture that is unlikely to have any real effect.

Parliamentary Speaker Sharif Hassan Sheikh Aden has made freelance peace initiatives before with the Islamists, but the government says he no longer acts on behalf of the administration. He is considered the government’s most sympathetic leader to the Council of Islamic Courts. Aden and Islamist leader Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed signed the agreement Saturday after meeting in Yemen.

The pact — which pledges to halt military action and resume peace talks — comes one day after President Abdullahi Yusuf said during a rare interview that peace talks with the Islamists are no longer an option, warning that the group is allowing Al Qaeda to “set up shop” in the Horn of Africa.

“This is a new chapter and part of the terror group’s plan to wage war against the West,” Yusuf told the Associated Press from his office in Baidoa, about 250 kilometres from Mogadishu.

Tension has been mounting in recent weeks between the government, which has international recognition but little authority on the ground, and the Council of Islamic Courts, which controls most of southern Somalia. The United States said the Islamist movement has links to Al Qaeda, an accusation Islamist leaders have repeatedly denied.

The Islamic Courts movement has vowed to launch a holy war starting next week unless Ethiopian troops supporting the government leave Somalia. Ethiopia, a largely Christian nation, fears the emergence of a neighbouring Islamic state and has acknowledged sending military advisers — though not a fighting force — to help the government.

The pact signed Saturday calls for “rejecting any interference in the internal Somalia affairs by the neighbouring countries,” a clear reference to Ethiopia. Also Saturday, witnesses in Baidoa — the only town controlled by the government — said Ethiopian troops fired at a truck carrying several civilians when the truck failed to stop at a roadblock. One person was killed. “We asked the driver why he wouldn’t stop, and he said he lost control of the car,” said Naimo Abukar Hassan, a passenger in the truck. “Then we were under fire.” Somalia has not had an effective government since warlords overthrew longtime dictator Mohammad Siad Barre in 1991, plunging the country into chaos. The government was formed in 2004 with the help of the United Nations, but it has struggled to assert its authority in the face of the increasingly powerful Islamic council. Experts fear the conflict in Somalia could engulf the already volatile Horn of Africa. A recent UN report said 10 nations have been sending weapons to the warring sides in Somalia. War would hit an already devastated country where one in five children die before age five from preventable diseases.

The impoverished nation also is struggling to recover from the worst flood season in east Africa in 50 years.

“The fighting can happen at any time now,” Yusuf said Friday, adding that peace talks were impossible now that the Islamist leaders have declared war on his government. The sides have held several rounds of talks in Khartoum, Sudan, but have failed to produce any lasting effect.

“They are the ones who effectively closed the door to peace talks and they are the ones who are waging the war,” Yusuf said of the Islamic council, noting that his administration would not attack first. Baidoa is surrounded by fighters loyal to the Islamic group.

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