Islamic leader rejects invitation to join peace conference

The deputy chairman of Somalia’s peace conference asked the country’s ousted Islamic movement to join the talks, but the group’s leader dismissed the meeting Thursday as “a disgrace and a humiliation”.The conference, which started July 15 after several delays, is meant to heal the wounds of 16 years of conflict.

But it has been the target of regular attacks by insurgents linked the Council of Islamic Courts, which was driven from power in December by Ethiopian troops supporting the government.

“We call on them to lay down arms and stop carrying out explosions and take part in the ongoing peace talks,” said Abdirahman Abdi Hussein, deputy chairman of the talks.

He urged “those who carry out explosions in the capital” to take part as well.

Government officials have said they will talk to the Islamists, but only if they renounce violence. The committee organising the conference is independent, although the government remains highly influential.

Government Spokesman Abdi Haji Gobdon declined to comment on Hussein’s offer. But Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, a top leader of the Islamic group and seen as a moderate, rejected it.

“We don’t recognise the government and the committee organising it,” Ahmed said in a telephone interview from the Eritrean capital, Asmara.

“They are part of the forces occupying the country.”

International donors have lobbied for the inclusion of moderate members of the Islamic group, which ruled much of southern Somalia for six months last year. Insurgents have vowed to launch an Iraq-style guerrilla war unless the country becomes an Islamic state.

Roadside bombs, attacks on government installations, assassination attempts and gunbattles have become common, and civilians are often caught in the crossfire.

On Thursday, five women accused government soldiers of raping them.

“Three men came into my house, they forced us out and they raped my wife before my eyes,” Aden Osman said during a protest that drew about 100 people — an exceedingly rare unauthorised protest in this restive capital.

“I could not help and they beat me with a gun-butt.”

Mogadishu’s deputy mayor, Abdifitah Shawey, said the allegations were a “flagrant fabrication aimed at spoiling the image of the government soldiers”.

Somalia has been mired in chaos since 1991, when warlords overthrew dictator Mohammad Siad Barre and then turned against one another, defending clan fiefdoms.

The government was formed in 2004 with the help of the UN, but has struggled to assert its authority.

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