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Top Somali warlord: willing to talk?

The fiery Sheikh Dahir Aweys may be ready to hash out a peace deal, following weeks of fighting the moderate government of Sheikh Sharif Ahmed.

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 17, 2009

Top militant Islamist leader Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, head of the Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia, smiles during a May interview in Mogadishu. Somalia's moderate Islamist government and its militant rivals appear close to starting peace talks.

Abdiaziz Hassan/Reuters

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Johannesburg, South Africa

After weeks of fighting, Somalia's moderate Islamist government and its militant rivals appear close to starting peace talks.

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This week, top militant Islamist leader Sheikh Dahir Aweys told reporters that he had submitted to the pressure of Somali clan elders to stop his punishing fight against the transitional government of Sheikh Sharif Ahmed and begin talks.

"We took the correct step, which is to accept and to participate in the peace process," Sheikh Aweys told reporters in Mogadishu, according to Garowe news service.

Another of Aweys's supporters, Malaaq Ali Malaaq Showri, also confirmed that Aweys and his Hizbul Islam militia were prepared to end the fighting and to start talking with the Sharif government.

Fighting between the Sharif government and an alliance of radical Islamist militias has had a devastating effect on the wartorn country, killing hundreds and sending at least 122,000 Somali citizens from their homes, and making them reliant on aid agencies for their survival.

Aid agencies have called Somalia the third largest humanitarian crisis in the world, but the continued fighting and collapse of effective government have caused ripples throughout the region and – because of rampant piracy – far out at sea as well. These talks could be the first positive sign that Somalia's conflict could be entering a more stable phase.

Behind-the-scenes jockeying for power

"What seems to be happening is that a lot of behind-the-scenes negotiation is taking place," says Paula Roque, a Horn of Africa specialist at the Institute for Security Studies in Tshwane (Pretoria). "Aweys may not have gotten the military successes he had been expecting and now he may be reassessing his political position."

Despite the peace overtures, there has been no let up in fighting. The Islamist faction Al Shabab, which shares an alliance with Aweys's Hizbul Islam, announced yesterday that it had taken territory from government forces north of Mogadishu. Fighting in Mogadishu itself claimed the lives of 10 civilians, along with the government's police chief.

Stalemate?

Yet the weeks of fighting have reached something of a stalemate, and pressure from Aweys's financial backers in the Arab world appears to have pushed Aweys to the bargaining table.

"He has been under great pressure from clan elders to stop the fighting," says Rashid Abdi, an expert on Somalia for the International Crisis Group in Nairobi. "He may also be realizing that the transitional government is not going to be a walkover. It is also possible that he may have been promised by the international community that his name may be removed from the terror watch list, if he begins talks with the Sharif government."

Although Aweys is a key figure within the Islamist movement – and as one of the most respected Islamic scholars in the country, a man impossible to ignore – his inclusion in talks with Sharif does not guarantee that other Islamist militias, including Al-Shabab, will also put down their guns and talk, says Mr. Abdi. "We just have to give the process some time."

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