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UN, AU to Assess Security in Somalia
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The United Nations and the Africa Union are planning to send two missions to Somalia to see how to best address the critical needs of civilians, a UN official said on Wednesday.

The humanitarian and security missions are expected to meet Islamic leaders who control the bullet-riddled capital Mogadishu and central town of Baidoa, said top UN envoy for Somalia Francois Fall.

Regional analysts also said on Wednesday that the rapid rise of Somalia's Islamic militias has prompted a flurry of diplomatic efforts to stabilize the troubled country in the Horn of Africa.

The AU and western diplomats on Monday decided to send officials to Somalia to assess the possibility of deploying a peacekeeping force to the country ripped apart by 15 years of anarchy.

That has the backing of President Abdullahi Yusuf, head of Somalia's virtually powerless transitional government, who flew to Ethiopia Tuesday to demand speedy foreign intervention.

Experts said the current situation in Somalia could allow the re-activation of dialogue between the various factions and lead to the revival of a peace process in the country.

Fall said their meeting in Jowhar would help the UN better understand the Union of Islamic Courts.

"We don't have a lot of information on the courts. We don't know exactly what their intentions are," he said.

Regional powers support intervention out of fear of an Islamic state on their doorsteps, while western governments are worried the country could become a haven for terrorists.

The mission will be the first formal contact between UN officials and the Union of Islamic Courts in Somalia since the union captured much of southern Somalia.

The African Uion (AU) agreed to send a separate team to assess the possibility of deploying peacekeepers in the lawless nation, which has been without an effective central government since 1991.

The UN officials said the prevailing calm that has followed the end of more than four months of fighting between the Islamic courts and other faction leaders offers an opportunity to help some 250,000 internally displaced people in Mogadishu and an additional 17,000 people displaced by recent clashes.

UN humanitarian coordinator for Somalia Eric Laroche said priority needs were in the areas of health, water and sanitation and protection.

"We will focus on scaling up existing activities, tapping on local resources and further building on positive coping mechanisms developed at the community level," Laroche said.

The deployment of any peacekeepers, which has been opposed by the Islamists would require the UN to lift its arms embargo on Somalia.

Despite threats and numerous public demonstrations against deploying foreign peacekeepers in Somalia, the parliament in Baidoa last week approved the deployment of African Union peacekeepers in the country.

President Yusuf says the government cannot operate without the help of foreign peacekeepers.

But many Somalis say they are beginning to believe hard-line clerics, who insist the president and his Ethiopian allies, with the support of the United States, would use the peacekeeping mission as a way to take control in Somalia.

The Islamic courts last week held large protests against peacekeepers.

Islamic court leader Sharif Sheikh Ahmed said their intention is to promote Islamic law, but denies they are like the Taliban.

"We are opposed to any form of foreign military presence in our country," said Sheikh Abdulkadir Ali, vice-chairman of the Union of Islamic Courts.

"There is no need for them at this time, since the warlords, who were the main obstacle to peace and security in the country, no longer pose any serious threat. With goodwill and dialogue among us (Somalis), we can solve any remaining minor security issues on our own," Ali added.

However, analysts warned that there are signs that more radical elements may yet emerge and take control.

Early this week, against the orders of the leadership, Islamic militia shut down cinemas in Jowhar that were screening World Cup football, upsetting football fans.

"We ordered all the cinema hall in Jowhar to close temporarily. In principle, we are against watching of western films," Ali reportedly said.

The fledgling government initially welcomed the Islamists' victory against warlords but the peacekeeper issue has divided them.

Experts say that the Islamic courts had strong backing from people living in towns under their control, and that the government, which has the support of much of the international community, has no option but to open a dialogue.

However, Yusuf has previously ruled out talks with the Islamic courts' leadership unless they meet three conditions, namely to withdraw their militias from Mogadishu, recognize his government, and disarm.

In return, the Islamists refused to have talks until the government said it does not want foreign peacekeepers.

Tension is also high in the Horn of Africa, after the Islamists said Ethiopian troops had crossed the border, a claim the Ethiopians have denied.

"Ethiopia has absolutely nothing to do with the latest fighting in Mogadishu and other towns between the militias of the warlords and the Islamic Courts Union," said a statement from the Ethiopian Foreign Ministry.

"It has had no role at whatever stage of the crisis, from the beginning up until now."

UN envoy for Somalia Fall said that there were reports of troop movements on both sides of the Ethiopian border.

"There's a risk that if the Islamist militias move close to the border, the Ethiopians might react," he said.

Ethiopia has been mentioned as one of the countries that could send peacekeepers to Somalia, but the Addis Ababa is deeply distrusted by some Somalis.

Ethiopia is also seen as being close to President Yusuf and there are some unconfirmed reports that Ethiopian troops have been spotted in Baidoa, the town 200 kilometers north of Mogadishu, where the fledging government is based.

During the 1990s, Ethiopia helped Yusuf expel an Islamic group from the northern Puntland region that he controlled.

International policy group warned the move to deploy foreign troops in Somalia could arouse feelings in the newly dominant Islamic courts movement, which has everything to lose by foreign intervention.

"Any sort of AU intervention, which would most likely be a cover for Ethiopian intervention, is most likely to be highly divisive and is likely to derail any attempt at peaceful negotiation between the government and the courts," Suleiman Baldo, Africa program director of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.

"The Islamist courts will be very hostile to any sort of Ethiopian intervention in Somalia," Baldo said.

Earlier this week, the United Nations' World Food Program and UNICEF warned that the recent fighting and years of drought had pushed Somalis to their limit, creating the highest rates of malnutrition seen in years.

WFP Somalia country representative Zlatan Milisic and Christian Balslev-Olesen of UNICEF said the situation was compounded by the difficulty in reaching the 1.7 million people who needed help in the wake of the drought.

"We must act now. The present calm, following weeks of fighting, offers an opportunity that the Somali and international communities must grasp to get assistance to thousands of malnourished children and their families," said Balslev-Olesen.

Fighting between Islamic courts and faction leaders belonging to an anti-terrorism alliance began in February.

More than 350 people, most of them civilians, died in the clashes, and some 2,000 wounded were treated at Mogadishu's two main hospitals.

In May, the Islamic courts took over control of the capital, restoring calm and sending the faction leaders fleeing.

(Xinhua News Agency June 22, 2006)

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