The government and Islamist militias in Somalia, who have been waging an insurgency for more than two years, reached a peace agreement on Monday, even though violence had spiked in the capital city over the weekend, prompting fears that the fragile peace might not hold. A leader of the former ruling Union of Islamic Courts also said Tuesday that his group rejected the accord.
Somali Prime Minister Nur Hassan Hussein and Alliance for the Re-liberation of Somalia (ARS) chief Sheikh Sharif Ahmed signed the accord at the ceremony witnessed by the Arab League, the African Union, the European Union, the United States and Saudi Arabia.
The ARS is an opposition umbrella group dominated by Islamists and based in the Eritrean capital of Asmara.
While some Islamist leaders and influential clan leaders joined the talks, other hardline Islamists, insisting the mediation was biased, have maintained their call for an Ethiopian withdrawal before any talks.
Voice of America adds that the deal – which seeks to end 17 years of conflict – also "calls for a termination of all acts of armed confrontation, beginning in 30 days and the withdrawal of Ethiopian troops within 120 days, but only after UN peacekeepers are deployed."
Thousands of Ethiopian troops have been stationed in Somalia since 2006, when Ethiopia invaded to oust an Islamist militia that had taken power in a coup. Somalia is now ruled by a transitional government that receives support from Ethiopia, CNN reports, adding that "the presence of Ethiopian troops trying to help defend a transitional government's hold on Mogadishu has united Islamic militant groups seeking to gain control of the city."
In 2006, the Islamic Courts Union – a militia group – ousted Somalia's transitional government from power. But the ICU was deposed in December of that year following Ethiopia's military invasion.
Since then, insurgent groups have been trying to destabilize the government.
Somalia's current transitional government is trying to maintain control of the capital, with the help of the better-equipped Ethiopian forces.
The violence has displaced more than 40,000 civilians who have taken shelter in dozens of makeshift settlements west of Mogadishu.
The Associated Press says Monday's deal "is an important step toward peace, but it remains to be seen if it will be respected by hard-line members of the opposition who have denounced those who took part in the U.N.-led talks in Djibouti."
Al-Shabab, the military wing of Somalia's ousted Islamic movement [the UIC], did not participate in the Djibouti talks. The State Department considers al-Shabab, or "The Youth," a terrorist organization.
Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, the founder of the Union of Islamic Courts, has also been dismissive of the peace talks. Tuesday, reports the BBC, he said he would fight on until all foreign troops were out of Somalia.
"We shall continue fighting until we liberate our country from the enemies of Allah," he told Mogadishu-based Shabelle radio.
The BBC notes that "some 2,200 African Union troops are in Mogadishu. But they "have done little to quell the violence which has triggered a humanitarian crisis that aid workers say may be the worst in Africa." And, it adds:
The deal brokered at UN-led talks in Djibouti does not include many of the armed Somali groups at present fighting the transitional government and the Ethiopian troops backing it.
The United States, meanwhile, has expressed concern over the possible withdrawal of Ethiopian troops, saying it could create a vacuum that Islamist forces might fill, Agence France-Presse reports, quoting Deputy US ambassador to the UN Alejandro Wolf.
"We don't want to see Ethiopians leaving if there is no alternative. They are the ones today securing part of the country even if their presence is seen as controversial," he said.
Underscoring those concerns, even as Monday's peace deal was being discussed, violence shook the Somalian capital, Mogadishu, as Islamist insurgents pounded government and Ethiopian troops with artillery, leaving many dead and wounded, The New York Times reports.
More than 20 people were killed and 80 wounded Sunday in especially heavy fighting in Mogadishu, Somalia's war-ravaged capital, where government troops face a deepening insurgency.
The trouble started around dawn, when Somalian troops began searching homes near Mogadishu's main market, looking for weapons. In response, heavily armed insurgents flooded into the streets.
As the violence rises, some have criticized the Somali government for brokering a truce with the opposition, saying the truce appears to be a failure to contain the radical insurgents, Voice of America reports.
[Minister of information Ahmed Abdisalam Adan] rejected any notion that by signing an agreement with the Alliance for the Re-liberation of Somalia, a group that has been described by some countries as a terrorist group, the Somali Transitional Government was admitting its failure to suppress the Islamic insurgents.
Instead Adan said the Somali government has for the past several months chosen to find a political solution to the country's problems. "We look at this agreement as a step forward of reclaiming our stability and our security because at the end of the day, Somalis have to reconcile among themselves before they can attract the attention of the world and ask the world for assistance. And this is a good start in that regard," Adan said.
The New York Times adds that the fighting comes as Somali is facing a host of other problems.
The fighting was the latest setback in a country that has been plagued by civil war, drought, spiraling inflation and massive displacement — often at the same time. Aid organizations have said that Somalia is as dangerous as ever and that the elements are lining up again for a widespread famine.