6 Somali children killed in mortar attacks

At least six children were reported killed in mortar attacks close to where scores of dignitaries were holding a long-awaited peace conference in the Somali capital Thursday.Residents reported five mortar explosions in Mogadishu’s northern districts, said police Col. Abdi Shino. Mogadishu Mayor Mohamad Dheere said six children died in the attacks as they played football just hundreds of metres from the conference venue. He said three other children were wounded.

Islamists “terrorists were behind these mortar attacks. They wanted to undermine the peace process and they missed their target and killed children,” Dheere said.

Hours earlier, a gunbattle broke out in the capital, and at least two people were killed.

The national reconciliation conference — aimed at helping the country heal the wounds of 16 years of conflict — nonetheless got under way. The meeting was a key requirement of the transitional charter that led to the formation of the latest government in 2004.

Prime Minister Ali Mohammad Gedi said it was “historic” to be holding the conference in Mogadishu. Despite opposition to the peace conference, “Thank God it has opened and we hope it will succeed,” he said.

The talks opened briefly Sunday but were postponed after eight mortar rounds landed near the venue. The meeting has been delayed several times before that due to infighting and violence in the capital.

More than 1,200 delegates are to discuss an 11-point agenda on issues that have contributed to Somalia’s 16-year conflict, including clan differences, looted property, a new constitution and holding general elections by 2009, said Ali Mahdi Mohamad, chairman of the organising committee.

Senior representatives of one of the main clans, the Hawiye, did not attend the opening Thursday, though junior ones did. Hawiye elders have been key critics of the conference, questioning whether it will be independent.

Organisers planned for the talks to run for a month but a final decision has not been made, said Abdirahman Mahmoud Shift, a spokesman for the conference.

Mohammad said the talks will resume Saturday as organisers iron out “technical” details. He did not elaborate, and was speaking before the nearby mortar attacks.

Over the weekend, Islamists threatened to disrupt the gathering, saying anyone who takes part would be “sentenced to death.” The threat came from the  wing of an Islamic group that ruled much of southern Somalia for six months last year. The group was driven from its strongholds in December but has vowed to launch an Iraq-style insurgency until Somalia is ruled by an Islamic theocracy.

The government has said the threats would not disrupt the conference. Somali and Ethiopian troops patrolled the streets and dozens of checkpoints were set up along roads.

Late Wednesday, a battle between government soldiers and suspected insurgents broke out near Mogadishu’s Bakaara Market.

“It was the worst gunbattle I have ever heard. They used all sorts of weapons: heavy machineguns and rocket-propelled grenades,” said Mahmoud Ibrahim, who said he watched the gunbattle from the rooftop of a hotel.

A government soldier and a civilian were killed, police said.

Mogadishu has seen little peace since government troops backed by Ethiopian forces drove Islamic hard-liners out of the city in December. Bombs, attacks on government installations, assassination attempts and gunbattles have become common, with civilians caught in the crossfire.

Somalia has been mired in chaos since 1991, when warlords overthrew Mohammad Siad Barre and then turned against one another. A transitional government was formed in 2004 with the help of the United Nations but it has struggled to assert control.

Uganda has about 1,700 troops in Somalia, officially as the vanguard of a larger African Union peacekeeping force, though so far no other countries have sent reinforcements.

On Wednesday, the AU voted to extend its mission for another six months until January 2008.

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