NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) – A European Union envoy plans to fly to Somalia to promote peace talks after weeks of saber rattling by the besieged government and an advancing Islamic movement.

But with troops on the move, suspected terrorists emerging as leaders and foreign fighters pouring into the country, only masterful diplomacy and some arm twisting will get both sides to back away from the brink of war for very long.

Louis Michel, the European commissioner for development and aid, will try to get the two sides to stop fighting and commit to high-level peace talks, according to an EU statement released Tuesday.

Fears of a full-blown civil war have intensified in recent weeks as both the government and Muslim leaders dismissed efforts to schedule peace talks and threatened military action. Both sides have moved fighters, fuel and ammunition to the front lines.

Somalia has not had an effective government since 1991. The current government, supported by troops from neighboring Ethiopia, holds only a small area around the central town of Baidoa. The Islamic militias control the capital, Mogadishu, but have also fanned out across most of southern Somalia.

The U.N.-backed secular government has rejected religious rule for Somalia, while the Muslim leaders have insisted on an Islamic government.

A war in Somalia would be devastating, the top U.N. official for Somalia warned last week. A drought wiped out most of the country’s crops and livestock in late 2005 and early 2006, while flooding since September has destroyed tens of thousands of homes and spread more misery. With fighting, as many as 400,000 refugees could flee into neighboring Kenya.

Despite having 1.8 million people in need of urgent aid, the government and the Islamic movement ratcheted up the war rhetoric last week. President Abdullahi Yusuf said military advances by the Supreme Council of Islamic Courts, the umbrella body for the Islamic movement, had closed the door to peace. Yusuf Indahaadde, national security chairman for the courts, said his forces would launch a major attack if Ethiopian troops did not leave Somalia by Tuesday.

The government has about 6,000 troops, who have been trained by Ethiopia.

Ethiopia acknowledges sending hundreds of military advisers to Somalia, but denies they are a fighting force.

Experts estimate the Islamic courts have more than 10,000 trained fighters, including about 3,000 foreigners who have poured into the country to join what some radical leaders bill as a holy war against Christian Ethiopia.

Diplomats in Nairobi spent the weekend trying to persuade both sides to back down. Michel scheduled his visit to Baidoa and Mogadishu on Wednesday intentionally to throw cold water on Indahaadde’s deadline.

The move appears to have worked.

A spokesman for courts said Monday it would not attack Ethiopian forces supporting the government, and was open to talks. The government also reiterated its readiness for peace talks.

When and where talks could take place will have to be worked out, not to mention who will host them. Government and Islamic officials have accused every international organization or interested country of taking sides. But even if both sides can agree on a date, location and mediator, fundamental issues threaten to scuttle the peace process.

The government wants the Islamic courts to join existing transitional institutions and respect the secular, democratic constitution. The government also insists that anyone with suspected ties to international terrorism must not hold positions of authority.

Jendayi Frazer, the top U.S. diplomat for Africa, has said al-Qaida militants are operating with “great comfort” in Somalia, providing training and assistance to the Islamic militia. Somali and Ethiopian officials have said they believe men wanted in connection with the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania now hold senior command positions within the Islamic forces.

Islamic court leaders have rejected the existing government and constitution and insist an Islamic regime is the only way to return Somalia to stability. They have said they will not engage in peace talks as long as Ethiopian troops are in the country. Some of the courts’ leaders have called for the government to resign and allow them to rule.

With such radically opposing positions, just getting both sides to the peace table will be tough. Reaching a lasting peace and power sharing will require tremendous compromise.


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