NAIROBI (AFP) — Somali opposition leaders Sunday urged hardline Islamists to accept a new ceasefire pact, saying it was the way to bring peace to the shattered east African nation.
"We are negotiating with those who rejected the truce and hope they will join us," said Sharif Hassan Sheikh Aden, a top official in the Alliance for the Re-liberation of Somalia (ARS), an umbrella Somali opposition group.
"If we continue with violence, the name of Somalia might be erased from the map," he told exiled Somalis in Nairobi.
"By signing the accord, we neither betrayed anybody nor abandoned the call for liberation of Somalia, but rather took a drastic decision to peacefully resolve the crisis," added Aden.
Somali Prime Minister Nur Hassan Hussein and ARS chief Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed signed agreements at UN-sponsored talks in Djibouti on June 9, including a three-month truce which is to come into force within a month.
But Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, an influential radical cleric, has rejected the deal, which was supported by western powers, including the European Union, United States, Norway and the United Nations.
The cleric, accused of links to Al-Qaeda by the United States, argued it failed to set a clear deadline for the withdrawal from Somalia of Ethiopian troops.
Aweys and his allies stayed away from the talks, saying they would not take part unless Ethiopian troops backing government forces since late 2006 pulled out of Somalia.
According to the accord, Ethiopians would withdraw after the UN deployed peacekeepers within 120 days of the armistice taking effect.
"The most important part of the accord is the withdrawal of Ethiopian troops from Somalia... if that position is not honoured, Somalis have a right to defend themselves," Ahmed said.
The African Union has deployed some 2,600 peacekeepers in Somalia -- short of the pledged 8,000 troops -- but they have failed to stem violence.
Since their ouster early last year by joint Somali-Ethiopian forces, the Islamists have waged a guerrilla war, which according to international rights groups and aid agencies, has left at least 6,000 civilians dead and displaced hundreds of thousands.
The leaders urged gunmen to release five aid workers -- including four foreigners -- currently in captivity, including a top UN refugees agency official who was kidnapped Saturday near Mogadishu.
"The abduction of aid workers is a criminal act that will not help Somalia. This must stop and those kidnapped must be released," Ahmed said.
The UN and other aid groups have scaled down operations in Somalia owing to increased insecurity, largely blamed on Islamist militants.
At least 2.6 million Somalis are facing hunger due to acute food shortages spurred by a prolonged drought, insecurity and high inflation. The UN famine monitors have warned that the figure could hit 3.5 million by year-end.
Aid workers have been constantly targeted since the 1991 ouster of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre paved the way for a breakdown in the state machinery and a rise in factional warfare.
The feuding sides agreed in the June 9 deal to facilitate unhindered delivery of humanitarian aid, but this has gone largely unheeded, worsening the living conditions of millions.
"Shortage of food is now the main killer in Somalia rather than the conflict. Many people in Somalia are starving and many others are in prison for no reason," said Aden, a former parliament speaker who was fired for backing the opposition.
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