Friday, July 13, 2007

Horn of Africa Update: Fighting Continues in US-backed Occupied Somalia; Eritrea Arrest British Council Staff

MOGADISHU 12 July 2007 Sapa-dpa


Mortar attacks and grenades pounded the volatile Somali capital Mogadishu on Thursday, just days ahead of a peace conference seen as the last hope for the battle-torn country.

Unknown gunmen launched seven grenades at Ethiopian-backed
government troops, killing at least three people, while overnight mortar shelling and gun battles left at least four people dead.

"Minutes after the first bomb blasted, another grenade was thrown at the Somali soldiers who were coming towards the first site of the blast. We could not know the casualties because we had to run for our lives," a journalist named only as Hirabe told Somali news agency Shabelle.

Somali officials did not comment on the violence but residents said it was the worst they had seen since the government slapped down an indefinite dusk-to-dawn curfew last month which has failed to ebb the attacks.

"We found three dead young men in the street junction near our
home," Qali Ali, a resident in Bar-Ubah junction told Deutsche
Presse-Agentur dpa.

The barrage of mortars came after a five-day government-led
operation in Bakara market, one of the world's largest open-air arms dealerships, where troops had been trying to purge the area of insurgents it blames for the daily violence.

The insecurity has raised fears that a much-awaited reconciliation conference slated for Sunday, seen as the best hope for peace in the anarchic Horn of Africa nation, may be postponed for a third time.

"An old man was killed in his home by shrapnel from the mortar round in our neighbourhood," said Yahya Omar, a resident of Abdel- Aziz district, where the peace conference is set to be held.

Despite the brutal violence, Somali President Abdullahi Yusuf
insisted Thursday the peace meeting would take place.

"Even if a nuclear bomb explodes in Mogadishu, the conference will happen as scheduled," he said. Yusuf's hilltop presidential palace was also targeted in Wednesday night's attacks, with three mortars striking the residence's walls.

An EU delegation visited the restive capital Wednesday and promised to return for Sunday's conference, which, if it takes place, is set to draw over 1,000 delegates.

"We were invited to attend the conference and we will be present," said Mario Raffaelli, Italy's special envoy for Somalia, before returning to his base in the Kenyan capital Nairobi.

Several key opposition groups have vowed to boycott the meeting, and observers have said the conference could lose all legitimacy if they do.

Mogadishu has not known peace since the 1991 toppling of dictator Mohammed Siad Barre by warlords, except for a six-month period last year when a popular Islamist group brought some stability to the bullet-scarred capital.

The transitional government - the international community's 14th attempt at cementing central rule in the lawless land - has been unable to assert its authority over Mogadishu.

ASMARA 12 July 2007 Sapa-AFP


Eritrea said on Thursday it had arrested two members of staff at the British Council in Asmara and briefly blocked a visiting British diplomat from leaving the country.

"The diplomat was found to have been violating our laws and
regulations so his departure was delayed," said Petros Fessahazion, head of European affairs at the foreign ministry told AFP.

He did not specify the offence and said the diplomat had since left Asmara.

In London, the British Foreign Office declined to comment.

Two Eritrean members of staff at the British Council were arrested, and one was later released, the Eritrean foreign ministry official said. He gave no details of their alleged crime.

"They were arrested because they violated our law. One is already free after just being interrogated," said Fessahazion. "The other is still there."

Media reports claimed the arrests were connected to the installation of a secure satellite communications system at the embassy.

In London, the British Council expressed concern that a member of staff was still being held by Eritrean authorities, despite the release of a colleague.

"The British Council and the British embassy in Asmara are in close contact with the Eritrean authorities and are working with them to resolve the matter as quickly as possible," a spokesman said.

"The British Council believes that the cause of the arrest is a simple misunderstanding and we look forward to resolving the matter as quickly as possible."

He added he was unable to comment on why the worker, described as a manager, was arrested.

Relations between Asmara and several Western nations are frosty, particularly with the United States.

In March, Washington scaled down operations at its embassy in
Eritrea, halting all services for foreign nationals after Asmara demanded to inspect its diplomatic mail bags.

Relations cooled after Ethiopia, backed by the US, drove out a
powerful Islamist movement from central and southern Somalia late last year.

US officials, along with United Nations weapons experts, have
accused Eritrea of supporting Somalia's Islamists.

Eritrea denies the charges and in turn blames the United States for instability in Somalia by backing warlords and Asmara's arch-foe Ethiopia, which is supporting the Somali government.

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