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Somalia to pick new president

world Updated: Jan 30, 2009 17:58 IST

Somali lawmakers were to elect a new president on Friday, with the current premier and the Islamist opposition leader clear front runners in the battle to take the helm of the war-ravaged country.

The newly-enlarged parliament comprising the more moderate wing of the Islamist-led opposition was due to vote in Djibouti on a replacement for Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, who resigned last month.

A long list of politicians have entered the fray but Prime Minister Nur Hassan Hussein and Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, who heads the pro-peace branch of the Alliance for the Re-liberation of Somalia (ARS), are the front runners.

"My first priority is to bring peace to Somalia and I will serve the nation to the best of my ability," Sheikh Sharif said at a lunch in Djibouti yesterday, in an eleventh-hour bid to muster more support for his candidacy.

The cleric, in his 40s, is also the head of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), which briefly controlled much of Somalia in 2006 before being ousted by an Ethiopian military invasion.

Ethiopian troops moved into neighbouring Somalia to oust what they saw as an extremist Islamic movement on its doorstep and prop up a weak Somali transitional federal government.

But after two years of deadly guerrilla war, the Ethiopians have pulled out with little to speak for, more radical groups have blossomed and Sheikh Sharif is seen by many as the candidate of the political centre.

According to observers in Djibouti, his main opponent in the election is Hussein, who emerged victorious from his latest tussle with former president Yusuf but whose TFG is weaker than ever.