Unified armed forces seen as key to peace

Somalia's transitional government on Tuesday hailed an agreement to unify armed groups allied to it with forces loyal to the country's increasingly influential Islamic courts as an important first step towards restoring peace.

Representatives from the Transitional Federal Government and the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) agreed on Monday during talks mediated by the League of Arab States in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, to "reconstitute the Somali national army and the national police force and work towards reintegration of the forces of the Islamic Courts, the TFG and other armed militias in the country".

In view of the agreement in Khartoum, a special summit of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), the regional body that has spearheaded efforts to restore security in the Horn of Africa country, was downgraded to what the host, Kenya, termed "a forum for informal consultations".

Kenya's foreign ministry offered no further details on the decision to turn Tuesday's planned "extra-ordinary summit" into a consultative session attended by Somalia's interim President Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, Ethiopia's Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and the host, President Mwai Kibaki of Kenya. The IGAD has been pushing for a quick deployment of a peacekeeping force to Somalia despite opposition from the UIC.

The TFG and the UIC have been in confrontation since June, when forces belonging to the Islamic group seized control of Somalia's capital, Mogadishu, after defeating the warlords who took control of the city following the toppling in 1991 of the regime headed by the late Muhammad Siyad Barre.

The UIC has been extending its authority to other areas of southern Somalia, much to the chagrin of the TFG, a fledgling administration set up in 2004 following reconciliation talks in Kenya between Somalia's various clans and political factions.

"Combining the forces of the government, the Islamic courts and other militias is the first step towards peace in Somalia," said TFG spokesman Abdirahman Dinari. "The main problem in Somalia has been security. If you want to restore peace, you must first recruit the armed people who have been harming others and bring them together. That is also the only way through which you can disarm other groups," said Dinari, explaining the apparent priority given to the military aspect of the civil conflict in Somalia.

At the meeting in Khartoum on Monday, both the TFG and the UIC pledged their commitment to an agreement on 22 June when they undertook to recognise each other and engage in further dialogue.

The latest agreement also calls for both sides to meet again in Khartoum on 30 October for talks on the political aspects of their differences, including power-sharing arrangements.

In a related development, hundreds of Mogadishu residents gathered in the city on Tuesday in yet another demonstration called to show disapproval of the plans to send African peacekeepers to Somalia. But Dinari dismissed the protest as "propaganda" by a few leaders in Mogadishu who had a "phobia" about an international force. "The majority of Somalis want help from IGAD and the international community," he said.

The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) meanwhile announced that for the first time in more than a decade it had delivered a consignment of food aid through the port of Mogadishu. This was expected to significantly cut the cost of food distribution in the country.

The MV Redline docked at Mogadishu port on Sunday loaded with 3,300 tonnes of food, including 2,400 tonnes of cereals, 780 tonnes of pulses, 90 tonnes of blended food and 30 tonnes of vegetable oil. The food would be trucked to the drought-stricken regions of Bay and Bakool in the south.

Leo van der Velden, WFP's acting director for Somalia, said WFP would send an assessment team to Mogadishu to make recommendations on how WFP could help repair facilities at the port, which has not been in use since 1995 because rival factions would not agree on how to share revenue from the facility.

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