TWO factions battling for control of Somalia's most fertile region and the southern port of Kismayu announced an agreement yesterday to stop fighting and hold a peace conference next week.
But in the capital, Mogadishu, Egyptian peacekeepers and armed Somalis fought a short but fierce gun battle for the second straight day yesterday, witnesses said.
The situations in the two major ports indicate the uncertain future this East African nation faces in the aftermath of the withdrawal of most United States and Western peacekeeping forces last week.
The rival factions in Kismayu agreed to an immediate truce and said the conference on April 8 would deal with issues such as withdrawal of their militiamen to locations yet to be arranged and the return of looted property to rightful owners.
A committee of clan representatives from the region is to choose the participants in the conference at Kismayu.
The agreement, drafted by a committee representing the Somali Patriotic Movement and the Somali National Alliance, was signed late Sunday after two weeks of United Nations-sponsored talks in Kenya.
The agreement came three days after Somalia's chief warlords, Gen. Mohamed Farah Aideed and Mohamed Ali Mahdi, agreed to a national peace conference in Mogadishu. Somalia's roughly 15 southern factions tend to ally themselves with either General Aideed or Mr. Ali Mahdi.
The Somali Patriotic Movement is dominated by Mohamed Said Hirsi, son-in-law of ousted dictator Maj. Gen. Mohamed Siad Barre, and leans toward Ali Mahdi. Since Siad Barre's ouster in 1991, Mr. Hirsi has been battling Omar Jess, an Aideed ally, for control of Kismayu and southern Somalia. The latest fighting was Feb. 23.
Kismayu is gateway to the Juba region, which straddles Somalia's only major river and once was the breadbasket of the arid nation. Mohamed Ibrahim Ahmed, an official of the Somali Patriotic Movement, acknowledged that previous agreements between factions quickly fell apart.
``We hope to disprove what the international community says: that Somalis cannot unite and settle their problems,'' Mr. Ahmed said. ``We have lost many lives. We have destroyed many homes. The time has come to settle our differences.''
In Mogadishu, at least one Somali was killed and three wounded as Egyptian UN soldiers trained sustained bursts of gunfire on crowded streets by the entrance to the port. It was not possible to confirm casualties immediately.
Also, Somali kidnappers freed a Kenyan and an Australian, both employees of the catering company supplying UN forces, after 16 days of capitivity, a relative said yesterday.
Wayne Hargreaves of Australia and John Warjui of Kenya were released Sunday evening in Mogadishu in exchange for a package of food, said Mr. Hargreave's wife.
Last week, two Cambodian employees were killed when gunmen fired on them outside Mogadishu while they were driving to collect food.