AFRICA UPDATE

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Somali factions open first round of talks

UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali today starts the arduous process of nudging rival Somali warlords together to try to form a government in the war-torn East African country. The meeting in the Ethiopian capital is billed as an "informal preparatory conference."

On the evening of the meeting, Mr. Boutros-Ghali was forced to leave Mogadishu, the Somali capital, his visit ruined by demonstrators who laid siege to UN headquarters there.

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The Addis Ababa meeting is to seek agreement on a date, venue, and delegates to a reconciliation conference, and perhaps prepare a draft agenda for it. A key question for the UN is whether the pressure of an American-led task force in Somalia has changed the climate for negotiations before less powerful contingents of UN peacekeepers take over.

Like President Bush, Boutros-Ghali also planned a quick trip to Somalia to view the chaos firsthand. But demonstrators - supporters of General Aideed who accuse the UN of supporting Ali Mahdi - never gave him a chance. Hundreds hurled stones at UN headquarters, trapping workers, including Boutros-Ghali aides, for up to four hours.

A dozen political parties representing five clans and 10 sub-clans have been invited to the talks, which represent the first serious political attempt to resolve a conflict that has split Somalia into a patchwork of feuding fiefdoms ruled by clan warlords.

Meanwhile, US military officials said Saturday they would send 4,000 fewer troops to Somalia than expected and turn more of the front-line duties in the war against Somalia's famine over to its allies.

That would reduce the US commitment from the 28,000 troops the Defense Department originally said it would send to 24,000. Twenty other nations have sent more than 7,000 soldiers to Somalia, and thousands more have been promised. Angolan opposition leader consents to talks

Former rebel leader Jonas Savimbi told a UN representative over the weekend that his organization, the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), was ready to renew negotiations with the government.

UN envoy Margaret Anstee met Mr. Savimbi Saturday for the first time since UN-mediated talks between UNITA and the government broke down in November.

"Savimbi said he was prepared to travel to Luanda, but thought that [security] conditions were not yet ready for him to go," Ms. Anstee reported on her return from the rebel leader's stronghold in the central city of Huambo.

Savimbi has repeatedly offered to meet with President Jose Eduardo dos Santos outside Angola, but the president has refused, insisting that talks take place in the country. Mr. dos Santos said last month that the government would only agree to direct talks with Savimbi once UNITA complied with several conditions, including withdrawing from strategic northern towns occupied after the elections.

Political stalemate has gripped Angola since the country's first democratic elections in September. Dos Santos' ruling Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola party won the popular votes, but Dos Santos himself fell a half-point shy of the 50 percent required to win the presidency. A runoff is required.

International observers declared the voting generally free and fair. But Savimbi declared the election fraudulent and fighting broke out Oct. 31 between government and UNITA supporters. Political prisoners killed in Sierra Leone

Human rights and church officials in Sierra Leone voiced concern over the execution of 26 political prisoners by the West African country's military government.

A recent decree setting up a military tribunal to try alleged coup plotters said that a high court judge must advise the tribunal and defendants had the right to a defense lawyer. Human rights groups said there was no evidence either procedure had been followed in the case of the 26, and relatives said they had never been informed of a trial date or allowed to arrange legal counsel.

The government still has not confirmed the execution this week of the 26, accused of plotting to overthrow the government, although it has said they were sentenced to death with no right of appeal.

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