Somali Islamist Leader In Eritrea Talks
Mr. Aweys's surprise appearance confirmed recent reports that the leadership structure of the disbanded SCIC was still largely intact.
[Africa News Update]
The hardline leader of Somalia's Islamist movement emerged from eight months' hiding yesterday to attend an opposition congress in Eritrea that called for an immediate withdrawal of Ethiopian troops.
Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys, who is accused by the US of links to al-Qaida, headed the Somali Council of Islamic Courts (SCIC) until it was driven from power in Mogadishu by Ethiopian forces, last December. Having fled the capital he was thought to be been living in southern Somalia.
Many people saw his hand in an ongoing insurgency mounted by former Islamist fighters and clan militias, against the occupying Ethiopian army and troops loyal to Somalia's interim government.
The conference, in the Eritrean capital Asmara, drew more than 300 delegates including observers from the United Nations and the European Commission as well as disaffected members of the Somali government. Mr. Aweys's surprise appearance confirmed recent reports that the leadership structure of the disbanded SCIC was still largely intact. The 72-year-old cleric sat beside Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, regarded as the SCIC's second-in-command, who said the aim of the ten-day meeting was to create "a political organization that liberates the country and ends the violence and chaotic situation".
"We call upon Ethiopia to unconditionally withdraw its troops from Somalia and stop its imperialistic adventure on our territory," Mr. Ahmed said. "We remind her that the longer the conflict goes on, the higher the risk it will engulf the whole region."
The opposition congress comes a week after the closure of a government-sponsored reconciliation conference in the capital. The separate talks are indicative of the wide gulf between the two groups, whose differences are being played out on the streets of Mogadishu, where several people are being killed in fighting every day.
They also illustrate how the Somali conflict has become a theatre for the proxy conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea, whose relations have never recovered since they fought a border war in the late nineties. Ethiopia is firmly on the side on Somalia's weak government and enjoys the strong support for the US, which provided military support for its invasion
to oust the Islamists.
Eritrea, despite having little tolerance for religious groups of any persuasion within its own borders, was quick to offer refuge to the Islamist leaders. The country has also been accused by UN arms monitors of supplying weapons to the SCIC and, more recently, to the insurgents
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