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Somali government, opposition groups agree to cease-fire

By Paul Salopek

Chicago Tribune

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — A surprise cease-fire agreement between Somalia’s central government and the armed opposition was greeted with more rocket and machine-gun fire in the capital of Mogadishu on Tuesday even as the residents of that beleaguered city hoped that the deal might at last bring stability to Africa’s most war-devastated nation.

"The people are very jubilant," Mogadishu schoolteacher Abdisirack Noriftin said by phone from the bullet-scarred capital. "Many, many people have been calling local radio stations, wishing that this will bring back a decent life."

As he spoke, a government military base in the north of the metropolis was under heavy attack, presumably by extremist Islamic rebels called Shabab who have vowed never to parley and to battle Somalia’s federal authorities to the death.

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One militant Islamist leader in the Somali opposition, Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, told Mogadishu’s Shabelle radio station Tuesday, "We shall continue fighting until we liberate our country from the enemies of Allah."

It was unclear how much power hard-liners such as Aweys, the founder of the conservative Union of Islamic Courts that ruled much of Somalia in 2006 until it was toppled by invading Ethiopian troops, held within the broader opposition movement.

Still, the ongoing violence underscores the frailty of the U.N.-brokered truce, the latest in a stack of similar peace deals between Somalia’s warring parties that have failed to calm the shattered country throughout 17 years of warlord criminality, clan power struggles and now a growing Iraq-style insurgency against the weak U.S.-backed transitional federal government.

"We never expected this first step agreement to be 100 percent inclusive," Somalia’s Deputy Vice President Ahmed Abdisalam Adan said from Djibouti, where the negotiations between the government and the opposition Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia took place.

"Other groups will be joining in," Adan said. "But we have to convince them that violence is not the solution for the Somali people."

Efforts to reach the opposition signatories Tuesday night were unsuccessful.

The last-minute success of the tortured negotiations startled many foreign observers. Bitter enemies, both sides had refused to meet face-to-face, despite staying at the same hotel in Djibouti for eight days.

The text of the agreement states that a cessation of hostilities will take effect in 30 days and will last for three months, when it can be extended.

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It represents a concession by the embattled government, analysts say, because it stipulates for the first time that thousands of Ethiopian troops now occupying Somalia must withdraw from the country by a target date: within four months. That language is softened, however, by linking their exit to the deployment of U.N. peacekeeping forces.

The presence of the Ethiopian soldiers — Somalia’s historic enemies — has outraged the vast majority of Somalis and stoked the insurgency.

About 2,200 African Union peacekeepers are now based in Mogadishu, but they rarely patrol the ravaged city and are seriously under strength.

No U.N. troop deployment has been agreed on. The last time U.N. blue helmets intervened in Somalia was during the early 1990s, as part of the disastrous peace-enforcing operation that resulted in the notorious "Black Hawk Down" battle in which 18 U.S. soldiers and possibly thousands of Somalis died.

"This war is so old, it is easy to be cynical," said Ahmedou Ould Abdullah, the exhausted U.N. envoy to Somalia who helped broker the current cease-fire. "When we have these sorts of settlements, we shouldn’t be negative. We need to think about doing whatever we can to keep these talks alive."

Abdullah noted that the alternative to peace in Somalia has been not just heartbreaking, but expensive.

War and anarchy have exacerbated the effects of famine in recent years, he said, resulting in the displacement of 1 million people. The international community has spent hundreds of millions of dollars a year in food aid alone to ease Somalia’s humanitarian disaster.

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