By Jack Kimball
ASMARA, Aug 31 (Reuters) – A conference of Somali opposition figures due to start in Eritrea on Saturday as a rival to government-sponsored peace talks in Mogadishu has been delayed until next week, organisers said on Friday.
Several Islamist leaders, some former Somali parliamentarians and an ex-deputy prime minister were among those due to attend the talks in Asmara.
The conference was intended to unite diverse groups who oppose Somalia’s interim government and vehemently object to the presence of its Ethiopian military backers on Somali soil.
But various delegates had not arrived in Eritrea by Friday, and the agenda was still not properly prepared, diplomats said.
The organising committee put out a statement saying the meeting would now start on Thursday, Sept. 6.
One Western diplomat who tracks Somalia closely commented: « I think they need a few more days to work out exactly how they’re going to handle this conference. The main rallying flag is going to be ‘get the Ethiopian troops out’, that’s for sure. »
Some opposition figures, including Islamist leader Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, have taken exile in Eritrea, whose government is sympathetic to their cause and a bitter foe of Ethiopia.
The conference’s organising committee said the event would be the first of its kind since « the United States-sanctioned and -abetted invasion of Somalia by the (Ethiopian) proxy forces. »
It added that the meeting would examine « purely national issues of liberation of the country and reconstitution of the essential structures ».
News of the delay came a day after a six-week national reconciliation conference, backed by the government and the international community, closed in Somalia.
That conference, which some had seen as the best hope for peace in the Horn of Africa nation, closed with a raft of resolutions but little impact on the insurgency raging in Mogadishu. Islamists, and some other opposition figures, had boycotted the Mogadishu talks.
Mark Schroeder, Africa analyst with U.S.-based intelligence consultancy Stratfor, said the Eritrea conference was likely to be « even less constructive » than the Mogadishu one, and could inflame regional tensions.
« Participants such as Sheikh Sharif Ahmed will be expected to criticise the Ethiopian intervention in Somalia, very likely demanding that Addis Ababa withdraw its forces from that country or face renewed war, » he told Reuters.
« The Ethiopian government under Prime Minister Meles Zenawi will perceive the statements and demands made by the Somali exiles … participating in the Asmara conference as clear national security threats. »
And Ethiopia will « not take kindly » to such statements emanating from Eritrea, he added.
Islamist-led fighters have been targeting the Somali government and its Ethiopian military allies since the New Year, when a brief, six-month Islamist rule of Mogadishu was ended.
Somalia has been plagued with violence since warlords overthrew dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991. (Additional reporting by Andrew Cawthorne in Nairobi)