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Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Somali Islamists quell demo, arrest protesters

KISMAYO, Somalia, Sept 26 (Reuters) - Somali Islamists quelled a women's protest against the takeover of Kismayo port on Tuesday, as the interim government expressed hope the latest tensions with its rivals would not derail peace talks in Sudan.

In a second day of anti-Islamist protests in Somalia's third biggest city, dozens of women and children took to streets now patrolled by Islamist fighters on pickups with machine-guns.

The Islamists quickly dispersed them, however, arresting several demonstrators including children, witnesses said.

"They are oppressing us," said Hawo Warsame, one of the women protesters.

"They have arrested some of us as well as our children ... These people are inhuman, they are refusing to let us protest peacefully."

Apart from the brief protest, Kismayo was calm on Tuesday with shops opening again after the previous day's much bigger and more violent demonstration.

One boy was shot dead on Monday when Islamists opened fire on a crowd burning tyres and throwing stones.

The capture of Kismayo was a major advance for the Islamists. Their rise since June has challenged the aspirations of President Abdullahi Yusuf's Western and Ethiopian-backed interim government, the 14th attempt at effective central rule since warlords ousted a dictator in 1991.

Diplomats who met Somali interim Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi in Kenya on Tuesday said he was still committed to talks with the Islamists despite Kismayo's takeover.

The government views the port's capture as breaching a ceasefire agreement reached at peace talks in Sudan.

Gedi had cast doubt over future talks on Monday, calling the Kismayo takeover "an expansion of extremists and terrorists."

But "(Gedi) said the government is still committed to the peace talks in Khartoum," Mario Raffaelli, Italian special envoy to Somalia, told Reuters after Tuesday's meeting.


Also visiting Nairobi, Somali Information Minister Ali Jama Jangali said the government had expressed concerns to donors over what he called "aggression by the Islamic courts".

The Islamists and government were due to next meet in Sudan's capital Khartoum at the end of October.

"We have never refused to attend the talks, in fact it was us who have always pushed for it," Jama told Reuters. "A peaceful environment is needed if the talks are to succeed."

Analysts fear the Islamist-government standoff could spark a major regional crisis in the Horn of Africa.

To bolster the militarily weak interim government, neighbouring Ethiopia, long the most powerful country in the region, has sent more troops across its border, residents said.

But Addis Ababa on Tuesday dismissed that as a propaganda smokescreen by Islamist "extremists" to cover their own "illegal actions" such as the Kismayo takeover.

In a further worry for the region, the United Nations warned that the growing tide of Somalis fleeing instability at home had raised the number of refugees in Kenya to the highest level in a decade and was threatening to exhaust food aid stocks.

Some 24,000 people have entered the Dadaab camps in northern Kenya since the start of the year, with the latest flare-ups in south Somalia pushing arrivals up to between 300 to 400 a day, the U.N. World Food Programme (WFP) said.
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