By LES NEUHAUS, Associated Press Writer
ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia - Somalia's president agreed Tuesday to a national reconciliation conference to try to end 16 years of anarchy in the war-ravaged country, paving the way for the deployment of African peacekeepers.
After intense pressure from the U.S., E.U. and U.N. for all-inclusive political talks, President Abdullahi Yusuf said his government was willing to negotiate despite stiff opposition from within his own administration.
Speaking to journalists at the African Union summit in Addis Ababa, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon said the talks must include moderate leaders from the routed Islamic movement that had threatened to take control of Somalia and had confined the interim government to one farming town.
Yusuf's agreement to national reconciliation was a key component to securing financial and logistical support from the U.S. and E.U. to help in the deployment of an 8,000-strong African Union peacekeeping force. At stake is $20 million from the E.U. for a peacekeeping force and $40 million from the U.S. It would include religious and Somali clan leaders, officials said.
African governments also want reconciliation talks before they begin deploying troops. Yusuf's government need the peacekeepers to help maintain order as Ethiopia, who help prop up his government, begin withdrawing their troops after defeating the rival Islamic movement.
"We would like to negotiate with all Somalis who would like peace, but we cannot negotiate with those who are intent on violence and terrorism," Yusuf said Tuesday on the sidelines of the summit attended by 35 African leaders.
"The peacekeeping force from the African Union will come soon," he added.
Fears are mounting that the country could again be plunged back into civil war without a peacekeeping force or reconciliation talks. But many senior officials in Yusuf's administration oppose the talks because they fear their jobs could go to Islamic leaders as a way of winning widespread support for the government. Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi voiced his opposition to such a move late Monday, saying the government was already an inclusive, broad-based administration.
Since the Islamic movement was ousted, factional violence has once again become a feature of life in the Somali capital Mogadishu, raising fears that the government's tenuous grip on power is not enough to safeguard the notoriously violent nation.
Deputy defense minister Salad Ali Jelle said Tuesday they will crack down on rising unrest in the capital by increasing patrols on the streets and launching attacks against areas believed to be hiding militants from the Islamic movement.
"They will be dealt with severely," he told journalists.
On the final day of the two-day AU summit, African leaders met to try to make up a 4,000 troop shortfall in peacekeepers. So far only three nations — Uganda, Nigeria and Malawi — have pledged troops. The peacekeeping agreement calls for an initial deployment of about 2,400 troops.
The U.S. has pledged to offer airlift support to the African force to prevent the routed Islamic movement from taking advantage of the power vacuum created by the withdrawal of Ethiopian forces, the top U.S. diplomat for Africa, Jendayi Frazer, told reporters at the summit.
"We do have continued concerns that these terrorists are not able to reconstitute themselves, and concern that they pose a threat to the Somali people and to the transitional federal government," Frazer said late Monday.
On Monday Alpha Oumar Konare, the AU's chief executive, said it was vital more troops were pledged and that they were deployed quickly.
"Lets be clear, we need to get the deployment off," Konare told delegates at the two day summit. "We need 8,000 troops but we only have 4,000 so far."
Konare added: "The more we delay in deploying troops, the more chance of the situation worsening."
The two-day summit has focused on two of the continent's thorniest issues, the worsening violence in Sudan's Darfur region and attempts to restore peace to Somalia.
On Monday, with Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir looking on, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that "the toll of the (Darfur) crisis remains unacceptable," with more than 200,000 people killed and 2.5 million displaced in four years of fighting. Hours later, in a rebuff to al-Bashir, the African Union chose Ghana to head the 53-member bloc, turning aside Sudan's bid for the post for the second year in a row.