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Somalia's parliament votes to elect new speaker


BAIDOA, Somalia, Jan 31 (Reuters) - Somalia's parliament on Wednesday started voting for a new speaker to replace one ousted over his overtures to Islamist rivals defeated by government and Ethiopian troops during a two-week war in December.

Sharif Hassan Sheikh Adan was voted out of office on Jan. 17 but his sacking drew international criticism that President Abdullahi Yusuf's government was missing a crucial post-war opportunity to become more inclusive. "The parliament session is now open for the election of the speaker. Two hundred and eleven MPs are present," Deputy Speaker Osman Elmi Boqore told parliament before casting his vote.

Adan is not a candidate for the speaker job.

The government, backed by troops and equipment from Ethiopia, drove out the Islamists who had controlled the capital Mogadishu and much of the south for six months.

The former speaker had close ties with Mogadishu businessmen who financed the Somalia Islamic Courts Council (SICC) and had tried several times to strike peace deals between the government and the movement. His actions infuriated the government.

African leaders are struggling to build an African Union peacekeeping force for Somalia, which would fill a security vacuum after Ethiopian troops leave.

Ethiopia says its mission is complete and it wants the first AU units to deploy by mid-February.

But an AU summit ended on Wednesday in Addis Ababa with a proposed peacekeeping force for Somalia still lacking firm commitments for thousands of troops.

Many African nations are nervous about committing soldiers to one of the world's most dangerous countries where warlords and their gunmen ruled unchecked for 15 years.

The dangers were underlined on Tuesday when a series of blasts rocked northern Mogadishu in an area of the capital where Ethiopian troops are based, security sources and residents said.

Uganda, Nigeria and Burundi have pledged most of the troops so far, with an unknown number also committed by Ghana and Malawi. Zambia is considering a contribution.

A senior Algerian official said his country would provide about 12 transport planes to airlift the troops.

The European Union has released 15 million euros ($19 million) to finance the Somalia peacekeepers.

Mortars fired at an Ethiopian base In Mogadishu

Gunmen fired several missiles at the Ethiopian military base in El-arfid, a settlement on the edge of north of the capital Mogadishu, on Tuesday night.

At least three huge explosions could be heard in some parts of the capital last night.

Witnesses siad that a group of unknown armed men reportedly riding in a car has fired at least three mortars at the Ethiopian military barrack that lies between El-arfid and Darmoley, settlements, about 10 km south of the capital.

The exact number of Casualties still remain un clear, but witnesses report that several people were injured in the attacks and the gun fire exchanges that followed.

This is the second time that the Ethiopian soldiers in the same station are being targeted by the gunmen. On 27 January, unidentified gunmen have fired rocket-propelled grenades at the Ethiopians in El-arfid.

Artillery explosions aimed at the government and Ethiopian military positions in and around the capital have risen since the government settled Mogadishu late December last year.

The Somali government said more then 3,000 remnants of Islamists are in Mogadishu alone.

The situation of the areas where the explosions occurred last night is reported to be calm on Wednesday morning.

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