Somali government close to collapse as Islamists take palace

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The Independent Online

Somalia's transitional government was close to collapse yesterday after 19 members resigned and its Islamist opponents took over the presidential palace in the capital, Mogadishu, reinforcing their control over more than half of the country.

The developments came just hours after the British Government in London gave its unequivocal backing to the transitional government of President Abdullahi Yusuf and declared that leading members of the Islamist movement should be persona non grata in any future coalition.

The Foreign Office minister Lord Triesman also insisted that the Government had "no knowledge" of Ethiopian troops being in Somalia - despite widespread eyewitness reports of them taking over strategic towns in the country.

While the West has been backing the transitional government, which holds no sway in Mogadishu and has little power outside the town of Baidoa, there is also an international arms embargo in place, depriving the same government of legally acquiring arms. The US has also been backing warlords outside the government which have been trying unsuccessfully to defeat the Islamists.

The ministers who resigned from the cabinet said they objected to Ethiopian troops entering Somalia, purportedly to protect the government from the Islamists. Ahmed Abdirahman Mohamed, deputy minister of higher education, said: "The government was taking orders from Ethiopia. Somalis can now have an opportunity to reconstitute their government."

The ministers also accused the Prime Minister, Ali Mohammed Ghedi, of being "an obstacle to progress", and stated that he and his allies "cannot carry out national reconciliation and development".

In a symbolic gesture, the Islamist militias said they would to set up a sharia court inside the presidential palace in Mogadishu. Abdurahman Janaqaw, a senior member of the Islamist militias, said: "It is only fitting that Somalia is ruled from this place".

Diplomats in the region believe offering the post of prime minister and some other ministerial jobs to the Islamists could be the only way to save a peace deal reached in 2004 in neighbouring Kenya.

But there is no guarantee the Islamists will accept such an overture. Nor is it clear how long it might take to thrash out a deal.

A Somali government source said: "The [no confidence] motion is supported and even funded by Islamists who want to take the position once talks with the government commence in Khartoum." The government boycotted the second round of peace talks with Islamists in Khartoum this month in protest at alleged violations of a pact against military expansion.

The Islamists' leader, Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, one of those who the British Government believes should not form a future government, has ruled out a meeting unless Ethiopia stops its "invasion" of Somalia. "We don't care who is removed and who remains in the government. Our only worry is Ethiopia and until they get out, we will not rest," Sheikh Aweys said yesterday.

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