The United Nation's envoy to Somalia says Thursday's deadly suicide car bombings near the town of Baidoa, where the country's besieged interim government is based and the only town it controls, have not dampened hopes for the resumption of stalled peace talks between the government and Somali Islamists. VOA Correspondent Alisha Ryu reports from our East Africa Bureau in Nairobi.
Cars burn after a bomb explodes at a checkpoint in Baidoa, Somalia
Authorities in Baidoa on Friday tightened security and arrested several people suspected of being involved in Thursday's suicide attack, which the interim government says was carried out by al-Qaida fighters or radical supporters of the powerful Mogadishu-based Islamist movement.
The U.N. envoy to Somalia, Francois Fall, tells VOA that he is dismayed by the incident, which has heightened fears that Somalia is firmly headed toward an all-out war between the secular Ethiopian-supported government and the Somali Islamic Courts Union, whose leadership is accused of having ties to al-Qaida and other terrorist groups.
"I am very concerned about this kind of attack because this is the second time in Baidoa and we do not know exactly who committed that [act]," he said. "We did not get an official confirmation that the courts assumed responsibility of the attack."
Somalia's first-ever suicide bombing occurred in Baidoa three months ago, when a car exploded near the convoy of interim President Abdullahi Yusuf. The leader escaped but several people in his entourage were killed. No one claimed responsibility for the attack.
There are conflicting reports about what exactly happened on Thursday at a checkpoint, five kilometers outside Baidoa. One government official says a woman wearing a veil and two other people blew up their cars as police tried to inspect their vehicles. Other witnesses say only one car exploded and the force of the blast destroyed two other cars waiting behind it.
The blasts killed nearly a dozen people, including unconfirmed reports that foreigners were among the dead.
Islamist officials in Mogadishu, whom the government blamed for the bombing in September, denied they were behind the attack on Thursday. But Islamist commanders have reportedly said the suicide bombers were targeting an Ethiopian military position in Baidoa.
Two months ago, Islamist leaders declared a holy war on neighboring Ethiopia, whom they accuse of sending thousands of troops across the border to prop up the weak interim government. Ethiopia says it has sent several hundred military advisors to Baidoa, but denies the presence of thousands of troops.
Thursday's bombings came just hours after Ethiopia's parliament adopted a resolution that called the Islamists a "clear and present danger" to Ethiopia and gave Prime Minister Meles Zenawi the authority to take any legal means to combat the threat.
But Francois Fall says he and other diplomats still believe there is a chance for all sides to calm down and resume peace talks at the end of this month in Sudan.
"We are talking to the government," he added. "We are now in touch with the courts in Mogadishu and there are some other initiatives on the ground. All of us, we are working with the Arab League to enter in some meaningful dialogue because we believe dialogue is the key to security and power-sharing."
The Islamists have rapidly gained power and territory since they seized the capital Mogadishu in June, threatening the interim government's authority. Two previous Arab League-mediated peace talks in Khartoum failed to halt escalating tension between the two sides. A third scheduled round of talks never took place.
Uganda: UPDF Mission in Somalia Blocked
The Monitor (Kampala) - UGANDA may not be able to send troops to Somalia after it emerged that the UN Security Council has tightened the enforcement of a 1992 arms embargo slapped on war torn country.
While the Council has extended the mandate of a group of experts monitoring the flow of arms in the Horn of Africa for another six months, the development has put in jeopardy Uganda's ominous deployment there and firmly squashed its quest for lifting of the embargo.
Defence Minister Crispus Kiyonga told Parliament on Thursday that Kampala was working with Washington and London to broker a partial lifting of the embargo to facilitate effective troop deployment under the auspices of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (Igad).
On Wednesday the Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution stressing that States must comply with the embargo on all delivery of weapons and military equipment to Somalia.
The resolution follows a November report by the Councils' Somalia Monitoring group, which implicated Uganda and a host of Igad subscribing nations of violating the embargo.
Uganda has distanced itself from any wrongdoing but the report spoke of Ugandan military support to the Transitional Federal Government, which is hanging onto power by a thread, through combat troop deployment, military trainers and advisers. Eritrea, Sudan and Ethiopia are also implicated.
However, Kiyonga has vehemently denied any UPDF deployment in Somalia.
The report said all the ingredients were there for a violent, widespread and protracted military conflict in Somalia, more so as the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), which is fighting the interim government, has stated its intention to violently oppose any Igad or African Union military force.
"The contest is overwhelmingly military in nature, with rampant arms flows to both sides," the report said.
"The arms flows are a premier part of a deliberate, ongoing and broader military build-up taking place on both sides."
The monitoring group, however, also made a number of recommendations for tightening the embargo, including a "total border surveillance and interdiction effort involving a combination of sea, air and land military forces as well as a financial-assets freeze on all Somali-owned and -operated businesses located inside and outside Somalia that are connected to either side."
Meanwhile, any UPDF deployment to Somalia faces stiff resistance, as Members of Parliament on Thursday said they would not back it. Responding to a ministerial statement from Kiyonga on Somalia, the legislators said any deployment there would be an unnecessary "bloody venture."
"Our house [Uganda] is already on fire caused by electricity shortage, the closure of Makerere University, shortage of drugs in health centres. Do we have the capacity to look for more problems?" Beti Kamya [Lubaga North] asked.
"Our history of deploying our troops to foreign lands has been bloody and we have not benefited at all. We have been to Congo, Rwanda and Sudan but the benefits are not palatable. We should not risk going to Somalia," said Hussein Kyanjo [Makindye West].
However, Kiyonga said Uganda had a revolutionary obligation to assist a fellow African state and was ready to move. "Uganda will not be found wanting in respect to calls to assist fellow African countries whenever the need arises. This will, however, be in accordance with our domestic legal framework and the international law," he said.
U.S. calls for regional Somalia force
By EDITH M. LEDERER, Associated Press Writer
UNITED NATIONS - The United States circulated a U.N. Security Council draft resolution Friday that would authorize a regional force to protect Somalia's weak government and threaten Security Council action against those who block peace efforts and attempt to overthrow it.
The draft, obtained by The Associated Press, would lift a 1992 arms embargo against Somalia so that troops in the "protection and training mission" could be militarily equipped.
It would ban Somalia's neighbors from sending soldiers — a demand by a seven-nation East African group expected to contribute soldiers to the force, as well as European members of the Security Council who want to ensure the force's aim is to promote peace.
U.S. Ambassador John Bolton said he expects Security Council experts to discuss the draft on Monday "and then we'll proceed as rapidly as we can after that."
The move comes after a veiled woman and two other suicide bombers exploded cars Thursday outside the western Somali town of Baidoa, the only area under the government's control. Ten people were killed in the attack.
No one claimed responsibility for the attack but the government blamed the Islamic movement vying for control of the country. The Islamic group denied any involvement.
Police questioned six suspects Friday, but declined to provide details about them.
Somalia has not had an effective government since 1991, when warlords overthrew dictator Mohamed Siad Barre and then turned on one another. A government was formed with the help of the U.N. two years ago, but has struggled to assert its authority. Islamic militants, meanwhile, have been rising up since June and now control the capital and most of the country's south.
A confidential U.N. report obtained recently by the AP said 6,000 to 8,000 Ethiopian troops were in Somalia or along the border, supporting the transitional government. It also said 2,000 soldiers from Eritrea were inside Somalia, supporting the Islamic militia.
There are fears that Somalia could become a proxy battleground for Ethiopia and Eritrea, which fought a border war in 1998-2000. Eritrea denies having any troops in Somalia, while Ethiopia insists it has sent only a few hundred advisers.
There was no mention of troops already in Somalia in the U.S. draft resolution.
The draft resolution emphasizes the council's "willingness to engage with all parties in Somalia, including the Islamic courts movement, if they are committed to achieving a political settlement through peaceful and inclusive dialogue."
The regional force would protect the U.N.-backed transitional government and train some of the local forces. Council diplomats said the seven-nation East African group envisions a force of eight battalions, each with 700 to 800 troops, but only two would be deployed in the first phase.
"It's very limited," said Britain's U.N. Ambassador Emyr Jones Parry. "The situation in Somalia ... remains very difficult and complex, and there isn't a simple solution, and there certainly isn't a massive imposed military solution from outside."
Bolton said Somalia's stability is in "grave peril" because of the pressure being placed on the government by the Islamic movement.
"What we want to do is introduce this regional peacekeeping force ... in order to provide some measure of stability there to permit a political solution," he said.
The goal is to eventually persuade the Islamists that a military victory is impossible, thus creating conditions for a negotiated settlement between the two sides, council diplomats said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
In the draft, the council said it would consider taking measures "against those that seek to prevent or block a peaceful dialogue process, overthrow the transitional federal institutions by force, or take action that further threatens regional stability."
The U.S. did not specify what measures might be considered but the resolution was drafted under Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter, which deals with threats to international peace and security and authorizes a range of measures from breaking diplomatic and trade relations to military intervention.
Bolton circulated the resolution two days after the Security Council adopted a resolution asking Secretary-General Kofi Annan to re-establish a monitoring group to investigate violations of the arms embargo for a six-month period.
A report earlier this month by the last monitoring group accused 10 countries of providing weapons, money and training to rival sides in Somalia. Many of those named denied any involvement and complained about being on the list.