Somali Islamists halt peace talks with government

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Saturday, July 22, 2006

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The Union of Islamic Courts has broken off peace talks with Somalia's interim government as the country slides closer towards major military conflict.

The Islamists blamed the influx of soldiers from neighbouring Ethiopia for the end of talks. In a press statement this morning, the UIC leader Sheikh Sharif Ahmed said "We do not negotiate with a government which is being helped by the enemy of Somalia."

The two sides were due to continue what have become increasingly hostile talks this weekend in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum. The weakened interim government led by President Abdullahi Yusuf is currently based in the town of Baidoa, north of the capital Mogadishu, which the Islamic militias captured earlier in July; the UIC now control most of southern Somalia.

The breakdown of talks comes as eyewitnesses report seeing more Ethiopian troops crossing the border. It's believed around 5,000 are now stationed in the country, attempting to protect President Yusuf's fragile government. The BBC is reporting 200 Ethiopian troops have captured an airfield outside Waajid early this morning, but the Ethiopian government has yet to confirm this — so far they have denied all military intervention and it is not clear if there was any fighting in the town.

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Ethiopia's involvement has angered the Islamist militia who vowed a "holy war" against the mainly Christian state if soldiers were sent in. Ethiopia meanwhile has threatened to "crush" the Islamists should they attempt to take Baidoa.

The brewing crisis in the horn of Africa could get more complex, as Ethiopia’s other hostile neighbour Eritrea has been implicated in supplying the militia with arms. "The Eritrean support is the backbone of the Islamists' military structure," one unnamed local analyst told Reuters. John Prendergast from the International Crisis Group has grimly warned that "The risk of full-scale war increases by the day."

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