Somalia restarts search for way to end 11 years of war and chaos

Talks began Tuesday in the 14th attempt at a peace settlement.

A fresh attempt is under way to bring peace to what is arguably the world's most anarchic country – Somalia – with the international community brandishing both carrots and sticks at the warring rivals.

Diplomats describe the talks that began Tuesday in this highland town in neighboring Kenya as the best chance yet for Somalis to restore their shattered country. Hopes are that the 350 Somali delegates – who range from clan warlords to members of women's groups – will agree to a ceasefire and forge a way to share power in a decentralized state.

The international community has taken a greater interest in Somalia since Sept. 11, with concern rising that the chaotic Muslim nation could become a haven for terrorists. Both the United States and the European Union are funding the peace talks.

During Tuesday's opening ceremonies, four regional heads of state berated Somali faction leaders for refusing to compromise during 11 years of civil war and turning their country into a killing field.

"Somalia has become Africa's teacher by negative example," Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni told the delegates and observers crammed into Eldoret's town hall. "The Somali people require peace and reconciliation; they neither need factions or slogans," said Kenya's Daniel arap Moi. "If you fail, history will judge you harshly."

Since Somalia's government collapsed in 1991, rival warlords have battled for control over territory, carving the Horn of Africa nation into a patchwork of factions and sending US and UN intervention forces home with their missions unaccomplished. After the final withdrawal of UN troops in 1995, the country was all but abandoned by the international community.

But Somalia jumped to greater prominence following the attacks of Sept. 11 last year. The Bush administration put a Somali group called Al Ittihaad Al Islamiya on its list of terrorist organizations and shut down a Somali money-transfer conglomerate that allegedly provided funding to Osama bin Laden. Warships and surveillance planes from Britain, Germany and the U.S. started patrolling Somalia's lengthy coastline. The belief was that Somalia's anarchy could make the predominantly Muslim country a breeding ground for terrorists or a hiding place for Al Qaeda fighters.

Intense scrutiny over the past year has turned up no indication that Somalia is a hotbed of terrorism, but the greater interest on the part of foreign nations led directly to the renewed drive for peace.

All foreign powers with an interest in Somalia - Western nations, the Arab League and the bordering states of Djibouti, Ethiopia and Kenya - are supporting the new set of peace talks.

Ethiopia and the Arab nations in particular have been accused in recent years of working at cross purposes in Somalia by jockeying for influence and propping up rival factions.

"This is the first time I see the international community is completely in line with the [peace] process," says an EU observer who asked not to be named.

But success hinges on whether Somalis with power and influence embrace the process. It appears at this early stage that most key warlords are willing to play along. Despite grumbling over how many delegates they had been allocated, faction leaders like Muse Sudi Yalahow and Abdullahi Yusuf were in attendance on Tuesday and others were said to be on their way.

The international community has tried – 13 times since 1991 – to bring a negotiated peace to Somalia. Some of the talks yielded signed agreements, but none resulted in a broadly accepted settlement because the mediators sidelined certain warlords or ignored the deeply rooted clan system.

The most recent peace process – held in Djibouti in 2000 – led to the creation of a transitional government, but several faction leaders weren't involved. The government has since managed to exert its authority over only part of Mogadishu and bits of territory outside the capital, all the while fending off attacks from opposition warlords.

Somalis could make this 14th peace conference the last one, says Italy's acting foreign minister Alfredo Mantica. Speaking on behalf of the Western donors supporting the peace process, Mr. Mantica said "the dividends of peace" could come to Somalia in the form of donor funding if the conference succeeds. At the same time, the EU is threatening so-called "smart sanctions" – such as travel bans and freezing bank accounts – against those deemed to be obstructing Somalia's reconciliation.

The organizers say the new push for peace is not just a "conference" with a set timeline but a "process" that may take several months and go through several phases.

The mood among the delegates Tuesday appeared hopeful. "I don't know what's inside people's hearts, but I'm seeing happy faces," says Awjama Omar Isse, a writer and civil society delegate.

"I cannot imagine any Somali group that will in any way sabotage this conference," says Abdullahi Addou, a delegate and former ambassador. "The people will not allow the warlords to resist peace."

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