NAIROBI, Kenya—African and Western diplomats moved closer Monday to sending a military peacekeeping mission into Somalia over the objections of the Islamist militias that seized control of the capital, Mogadishu, earlier this month.
Worried about further violence in the badly fractured country, African officials, envoys from donor countries and representatives of Somalia's transitional government agreed at a meeting to dispatch a team of experts to assess the size and logistical requirements of a possible peacekeeping force.
The move could widen the rift between the groups that now claim control of parts of Somalia: the Islamic Courts Union, a coalition of militias dedicated to Muslim sharia law that toppled secular warlords widely believed to have been supported by the United States, and a powerless but internationally backed transitional government that's based in the town of Baidoa, 150 miles northwest of Mogadishu.
The heavily armed Islamist militias, which now control most of southern Somalia, have said they don't want any foreign troops in the country. But the transitional government—formed in 2004 in neighboring Kenya in a U.N.-led effort to create Somalia's first functioning government since 1991—has said it can't rule effectively without help from foreign peacekeepers.
Diplomats left open the possibility that they wouldn't send troops, and stressed that the assessment team's first priority would be to help launch peace talks between the warring sides.
But the envoys were worried about the possibility of more violence. About 350 people have been killed since serious fighting broke out between the Islamists and warlords in February, and the country is awash in weapons.
"Most of the people around the table believed there is a strong possibility that the situation could unravel," said Tim Clarke, the European Union representative to Monday's meeting at African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
Envoys expressed their support for the transitional government but said they hoped to work with the militias.
"I hope certainly that this (team) is not seen as an aggressive act," Clarke said. "It's intended to be seen in the context of building peace and stability."
If a peacekeeping mission is deployed—most likely from African countries—it would face serious opposition among the people of Mogadishu, many of whom credit the militias with restoring a measure of calm after 15 years of warlord rule. Over the weekend in the battered seaside capital, thousands of people demonstrated against foreign military intervention.
The militias are armed with weaponry they seized from the retreating warlords, who according to many in Somalia were backed with money from the CIA. The support ostensibly was in exchange for their help in trying to capture militants with links to al-Qaida, who'd been suspects in a series of terrorist attacks in East Africa over the past decade.
Having swiftly routed the warlords from southern Somalia, militia leaders have said they don't intend to move on Baidoa and have pledged to participate in talks with the transitional government.
But they were angered by unconfirmed reports over the weekend that troops from neighboring Ethiopia—an ally of the transitional government but considered an enemy by many Somalis—had crossed into western Somalia, near Baidoa.
On Monday, an Ethiopian government spokesman denied the reports.
A spokesman for the Somali transitional government said a peacekeeping force was necessary for peace talks to proceed.
"We want talks to continue, but a conducive environment should be in place and not what the courts have been engaged with recently," government spokesman Abdirahman Dinari said outside the meeting in Addis Ababa.
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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