SOMALIA: Conference organisers optimistic, despite adjournment

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

The much-touted national reconciliation conference opened as scheduled on 15 July in Somalia's capital, Mogadishu, but was adjourned a few hours later, in a move that civil society hailed as positive as it gave the government time to make sure most would-be delegates attended.

"The conference was officially opened by the President [Abdullahi Yusuf] at 2pm local time," Abdulkadir Walayo, the media adviser to the National Governance and Reconciliation Commission (NGRC), which is organising the conference, told IRIN.

He said the conference was adjourned until 19 July to allow for late delegates. There had also been some technical hitches. "We had problems with badges and accommodation, which will be sorted out by Thursday [19 July]."

As the conference began, five mortar shells landed near the meeting place, killing three people and injuring 12 others, according to a local journalist, who was at the scene.

"It created a lot of anxiety in the conference hall and the president [who was speaking at the time] had to calm the delegates," the journalist said. Yusuf told the delegates that they should not be afraid and “they will only die when their times comes”, according to the journalist.

He said the conference was adjourned shortly after the incident, with more delegates expected to arrive.

Estimates of the number of delegates who arrived varied between half and 70 percent of the expected 1,350. "I think they [the government] were disappointed at the turnout given the amount of effort they put in," said a civil society source.

However, Walayo said he was confident the remaining delegates would be in Mogadishu by 19 July and that the conference would proceed without a hitch. "We are hopeful that everyone will be here by then [Thursday] and the conference will get down to business."

The civil society source, however, cautioned that Friday's attack and the absence of Western diplomats could lead "many undecided groups to give up on the conference. They need to quickly reach out to the political wing of the UIC [Union of Islamic Courts] and the Hawiye elders for the conference to have any chance of success."

Walayo said representatives from the African Union, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), Ethiopia, Kenya and Yemen were present at the opening ceremony.

The conference has been postponed three times amid threats of violence and fears that some of the key personalities - the UIC and Hawiye (the dominant clan in Mogadishu) elders - are refusing to attend. Both groups are insisting that staging the talks in Mogadishu while Ethiopian troops are present makes genuine dialogue impossible.

Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, the chairman of the UIC, told IRIN on 13 July: "For any genuine Somali dialogue to take place inside the country there has to be immediate and unconditional withdrawal of the Ethiopian troops from Somalia."

Ahmed Diriye, a member of the Hawiye elders' council, added, "Mogadishu is a war zone and occupied by a foreign force; it is neither neutral nor secure."

Source: IRIN