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Diplomats push reconciliation, peace force in Somalia

Western and African diplomats met in Tanzania to discuss reconciliation in post-war Somalia.

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Western and African diplomats met in Tanzania on Friday to discuss reconciliation in post-war Somalia and a plan to send peacekeepers to bolster government efforts to tame the anarchic nation.

The International Contact Group on Somalia has called for the urgent dispatch of an African peacekeeping force to stabilise the country after a December offensive by Ethiopian and government troops drove rival Islamists from territory they had captured since June.

The ICG includes the United States, European and Africa nations.

<b1>"Now we need to, like a laser, focus on supporting the sovereign transitional federal government and the Somali people," US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer said at the meeting's start in Dar es Salaam.

"One of the key tasks in front of us is the security of that government and those people particularly as we see an increase in violence or mortar attacks in Mogadishu," she said, adding that US President George W Bush had requested 60 million dollars for Somalia in his budget.

Since defeating the Islamists, who had controlled most of south Somalia since taking the capital Mogadishu in June, the government and Ethiopian troops have been attacked with mortars, grenades, gunfire and assassination attempts on a near-daily basis.

Civilians have been the main victims of the attacks which officials blame on remnants of the Islamist movement, some of whom have vowed holy war.

Donors fear that if the government does not make peace with all the clans in Somalia, the country will slide back into the anarchy and violence it has largely known since the 1991 ouster of a dictator.

Under Western pressure to reach out to all parties in Somalia, including moderate Islamists and the powerful clans, President Abdullahi Yusuf has agreed to call a national reconciliation conference.

Diplomats say reconciliation is essential for a peace force to work. The African Union is struggling to build an 8,000-strong mission before Ethiopian troops leave.

Many African countries are nervous about sending soldiers to one of the world's most dangerous countries. So far, only 4,000 troops have been pledged, with Uganda, Nigeria and Burundi the main backers.

"The need for African troop deployment for stabilisation in Somalia is of absolute necessity," Tanzanian Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Minister Bernard Membe said.

"The presence of the troops will enable the government of the day to concentrate on the building up of political administrative and judicial institutions aimed at establishing good governance and the rule of law."

Yesyterday, one of the Islamists' most senior leaders, Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, seen by many as crucial in helping bring reconciliation to Somalia, arrived in Yemen where officials said he would be allowed to stay.

He opposes troop deployment. And there are fears the arrival of foreign soldiers could attract foreign jihadists to Somalia.