Leading opposition figure returns to Somalia

Sheikh Hassan Aweys, whom the US accuses of having ties to Al Qaeda, says he wants to unite warring Islamic factions.

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Somalia's leading opposition figure returned to Mogadishu Thursday and called for unity among the various Islamist factions, a move that could bolster reconciliation efforts in the wartorn country.

Sheikh Hassan Aweys, who is on the US list of terrorism suspects for alleged links to Al Qaeda, came back to Somalia after more than two years in exile in Eritrea. Members of his alliance said he would promote reconciliation, but Mr. Aweys said that cannot happen until African Union troops leave Somalia.

Aweys is the former legislative head of the Islamic Courts Union, a movement that ended Somalia's longstanding civil war and came to power in 2007. But it was ousted in a US-backed Ethiopian invasion by the end of that year and subsequently split into two factions. Aweys's faction, the Alliance for the Reliberation of Somalia (ARS-Eritrea), is part of the Islamic Party, which opposes the government of President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed. Aweys had backed Islamic insurgents fighting the government, reports the Associated Press.

Leading figures in ARS-Eritrea said Aweys has come back to Somalia to promote reconciliation among Islamist factions, reports Garowe Online, the website of a leading radio station in northern Somalia.

"I will meet with anyone concerned about Somalia and my trip [to Somalia] is not influenced by foreign countries," Sheikh Aweys told Qatar-based Al Jazeera TV, although he did not specify whether he plans to meet with President Sheikh Sharif.
Sheikh Ismail Haji Addow, a senior member of ARS-Eritrea, told reporters that Sheikh Aweys would meet with meet with different sections of society in Mogadishu to promote reconciliation among Islamist factions.
"We [ARS-Eritrea] have moved back to Mogadishu, but we will keep an office in Eritrea," Sheikh Addow said, while underscoring that Sheikh Aweys' main task would be to reconcile factions within the

, or the resistance movement that became popular during the Ethiopian army's two-year intervention in south-central Somalia.

However, Aweys declared that reconciliation will not be possible until the African Union Peacekeeping Force (AMISOM) leaves the country. Aweys views the African force as foreign occupiers, reports Reuters.

"Let AMISOM leave then we shall have talks with our deceived friends, government officials," Aweys told opposition supporters in the Somali capital.
"AMISOM is not a peacekeeping force ... They are bacteria in Somalia. Somalia has not yet reached peaceful agreement. So be patient. We are left with little time to fight and achieve our Islamic objective," he told hundreds of supporters.
A 4,300-strong AU peacekeeping mission in the Somali capital has faced near-daily attacks. Analysts say the insurgents are preparing to step up assaults on peacekeepers there.

In addition to the progovernment and antigovernment factions of the Islamic Courts Union, other Islamist groups are present, and fueling internecine warfare in a country that has not had an effective government since warlords overthrew its dictator in 1991. The strongest such group is the hard-line militia Al Shabab, which has been waging an assassination campaign that targets moderate and progovernment Islamists, reports Voice of America this week.

A senior member of an Islamist militia allied with Somalia's government has been killed in the capital, Mogadishu, in the second such attack in as many weeks....
Meanwhile, a leader of the Hawiye, Somalia's largest clan, said al-Shabab fighters attempted to assassinate him overnight in Mogadishu. Ahmed Dirie Ali said the group has drawn up a list of prominent political figures to assassinate.
Hawiye clan leaders and moderate Islamists have lent their support to President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, who took office at the end of January, after his faction of the Islamist opposition signed an agreement with the government.

American officials are concerned that Aweys's ARS will join hands with Al Shabab, topple the government, and provide a safe haven for Al Qaeda. In addition, piracy (a phenomenon distinct from the Somali insurgency) is raging near Somalia's coasts. These developments are pushing Washington and other Western nations to increase the amount of aid to the country, reports The Wall Street Journal.

International donors led by the European Union pledged over $250 million Thursday to Somalia to pay for law enforcement, humanitarian aid and possibly a coast guard…
Officials didn't break down how the money will be spent. They said the funding will allow the African Union to expand its peacekeeping force in the country to 8,000 from 4,350. Though insufficient on their own, the African Union forces are the country's main guarantor of security. More importantly, the money will help Somalia build up his police force to 16,000 men, said EU officials.

The Christian Science Monitor reports that unless the general lawlessness and poor security conditions are addressed, the Islamists may join forces with the pirates.

[W]ith so many Western naval ships off the coast, radical Islamist groups such as Al Shabab, could turn to high-seas piracy as a means for striking Western – and especially American – interests and to bring on a confrontation with the West…
"The signal has been sent that the old approach of pay ransom and move on ... isn't going to work anymore," says [expert Iqbal] Jhazbhay. "The danger is that if Al Shabab want to dramatize the situation and bring another 'Black Hawk Down,' then it's likely to see that approach more often. It all depends on what the Islamists want to do next."
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