Somali Government, Islamic Militias Agree To Resume Peace Talks

Announcement Comes as Fighting Flares

Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, December 21, 2006; Page A20

NAIROBI, Dec. 20 -- Somalia's Council of Islamic Courts and the country's transitional government agreed Wednesday to resume peace talks without any preconditions, as fighting broke out between the two sides.

"The mission can be considered a full success," a European Union envoy, Louis Michel, said at a news conference in Nairobi. " . . . There was a broad agreement to de-escalate and refrain from hostile acts. . . . There are still issues that will have to be resolved. But I'm convinced of the sincerity of both parties to go forward."

While Michel discussed peace with their leaders, Islamic Courts militias and the Ethiopian-backed transitional government fought with rockets and heavy weapons in towns just southeast and southwest of Baidoa, the town where the government is based.

Michel said he had "noted" the fighting. "I'm in favor of the optimism of the will, and not the pessimism of reality," he said.

No place or date has been set for the talks, which would be a resumption of negotiations held in Khartoum, the Sudanese capital, that fell apart after each side accused the other of violating agreements. Michel said Wednesday that both sides had "reaffirmed previous commitments" made in Khartoum.

The United States and Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi expressed support for the agreement, Michel said, adding that it offered an opportunity to avert a conflict that he and other diplomats say could spill across the Horn of Africa.

Ethiopia is estimated to have at least 8,000 troops in Somalia to protect the fragile transitional government, which it considers a buffer against an Islamic movement that has taken control over most of southern Somalia, including the capital, Mogadishu.

A recent U.N. report found that the Islamic movement has received arms from Eritrea, among other countries.

Michel said no agreement had been made on withdrawing the Ethiopian troops, a primary demand of the Islamic movement, which considers Ethiopia a U.S.-backed invading force.

The Ethiopian government has repeatedly denied having more than a few hundred military trainers in Somalia and accuses the Islamic Courts of backing secessionist groups in the ethnically Somali region of Ethiopia. Both the United States and Ethiopia accuse the Islamic Courts of harboring terrorists, a charge the movement has denied.

Initially a grouping of local clerics, the Islamic Courts came to power this year by defeating U.S.-backed warlords who marketed themselves as an "anti-terrorism" coalition but who mostly terrorized a Somali population that came to despise them.

Beleaguered Somalis embraced the Islamic Courts movement, which has created a semblance of order based on Islamic law in a country of warring clans that has been without a central government since 1991.

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