Exiled Somali opposition leader returns to Eritrea

Somalia’s hardline Islamist opposition leader Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys has returned to his exile base in Eritrea without meeting Somalia’s new President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, a close ally said on Tuesday.
Aweys, 62, is on a US list of terrorism suspects. He quit self-imposed exile in Eritrea last month and went to Sudan for what some Somalis had hoped would be reconciliation meetings with the president and members of parliament from his clan.
Reuters says his return to Asmara is another setback for Ahmed, who faces the daunting task of trying to establish a new national security force and persuade heavily-armed Islamist guerrillas to back his government in the interests of peace.
“He returned as he had planned. He has been in Asmara for the last three days,” said Jama’ Mohamed Khalib, deputy chairman of the opposition Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia (ARS) in Asmara, and an Aweys ally.
“Khartoum is not his base. He went back to the ARS base in Asmara. He has no animosity with (Somali) government officials,” he told Reuters by phone from Eritrea.
Aweys and Ahmed had worked alongside one another in the Islamic Courts Union that ruled Somalia’s capital in 2006 before being ousted by Ethiopian troops.
They later formed the ARS in Eritrea but fell out when Ahmed joined a UN-hosted peace process in neighbouring Djibouti. Ahmed was elected Somalia’s first Islamist president by lawmakers meeting in Djibouti in January.
But some Somalis had expected the former colonel to end his exile in Eritrea, return to Mogadishu from Sudan and endorse Ahmed’s government, which voted last week to introduce sharia law in the Horn of Africa nation.
Regional diplomats accuse Eritrea of meddling in Somalia’s affairs to destabilise the Western-backed government and fear the return of Aweys could lead to more insecurity down the line.
“It’s not good news,” said one diplomat. “There was no progress, no dialogue while he was in Sudan.”
A senior Somali embassy official in Khartoum said Aweys had refused to see legislators from his Hawiye clan who had travelled there to meet him. Ahmed is also a Hawiye.
Khalib said his group would only speak with government officials once some conditions, such as the withdrawal of foreign troops from Somalia, were met.
The Ethiopian troops that ousted the Islamic Courts withdrew this year, but there are 4300 African Union peacekeepers in Somalia and hardline Islamists routinely launch mortar and suicide attacks against the force.
“The only obstacle to direct negotiations is the presence of the foreign forces. Talks are impossible as long as the troops are there,” said Khalib.
Ahmed has said he wants the troops from Uganda and Burundi to stay in the country until Somali security and police forces can be established to curb the violence.
International donors meeting in Brussels this week say Somalia needs about $165 million over the next 12 months to pay for a 6000-strong new national security force, 10 000 Somali police, and to support the African Union troops.