African troops set for Somalia role

By Wangui Kanina


NAIROBI – African peacekeepers will be deployed to Somalia within a few weeks or months, Kenya said on Thursday, under a plan opposed by powerful Islamists who threaten the country’s shaky interim government.


And in Mogadishu, the Islam

ists showed another sign they will brook no dissent, forcibly shutting down a meeting of a moderate Islamist group for failing to get permission to gather.


Moses Wetangula, Kenya’s deputy foreign affairs minister, told reporters the first east African troops would be deployed “in a couple of weeks or months.”


“Dialogue between the transitional federal government and the Islamic Courts Union is of paramount importance in order to improve conditions for possible deployment,” Wetangula said on the sidelines of a meeting in Nairobi of military chiefs from Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, Somalia, Eritrea, Djibouti and Sudan.


The Islamists, which formed as a union of sharia law courts, are vehemently opposed to foreign peacekeepers — particularly those from bordering nations like Ethiopia, Kenya and Djibouti.


Any deployment requires U.N. Security Council approval.


Somalia’s shaky government requested foreign troops soon after it was formed in late 2004, as a 14th shot at building national rule since Somalia fell into anarchy with the 1991 ouster of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre.


Despite approval last year from the African Union and regional peace body IGAD, no peacekeeping troops have gone into the Horn of African nation of 10 million.

GRIP TIGHTENING


With no real army of its own, the government has relied on the threat of Ethiopian military backing should the better-armed Islamists attack.


Witnesses say Ethiopian troops are already in Somalia, which Addis Ababa denies. A U.N. report says Eritrea has armed the Islamists to frustrate rival Ethiopia’s plans.


The Islamists emerged in June as a new political and military force after defeating U.S.-backed warlords and seizing control of Mogadishu and a strategic swathe of southern Somalia.


Arab League-brokered talks between the Islamists and government in the Sudanese capital Khartoum were put on hold on Tuesday when the Islamists asked for a delay.


Many diplomats privately expect little to come out of the effort, as the Islamists have spent their time consolidating their power.


The Islamists on Thursday forcibly broke up a meeting of al-Islah, a non-violent political Islamist group that was once a rival to the militant al-Itihaad group from which hardline Islamist leader Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys came.


“We are very sorry how the Islamic Courts have behaved because our meeting does not harm security,” spokesman Ibrahim Dusuqi told Reuters.


About 40 gunmen surrounded the hotel where al-Islah members were celebrating the group’s 28th anniversary and ordered them out, saying they had not received written permission to meet. — Reuter