BAIDOA, Somalia Somali President Abdullahi Yusuf resigned on Monday, ending a deadlock at the top of the fractured government and opening the door for a new administration in the anarchic Horn of Africa nation.
The Western-backed government headed by Yusuf for the past four years has failed to bring order and security to a country pummeled by violence since a dictator was ousted in 1991.
Islamist insurgents control southern Somalia and are camped on the fringes of the capital Mogadishu. The government and its Ethiopian military backers have only Mogadishu and Baidoa, the seat of parliament, while feuding warlords hold sway elsewhere.
Rifts between Yusuf and Prime Minister Nur Hassan Hussein over the composition of the government and a U.N.-hosted peace process had pushed the administration to the brink of collapse -- just as Ethiopia is planning to pull out its soldiers.
The instability onshore has fueled rampant piracy in the busy shipping lanes off the coast of the Horn of Africa nation and sent foreign navies rushing to patrol the key trade routes.
"As I promised when you elected me on October 14, 2004, I would stand down if I failed to fulfill my duty, I have decided to return the responsibility you gave me," Yusuf said.
Parliament speaker Sheikh Aden Madobe became interim president in line with the constitution and elections are due within 30 days. Madobe told reporters in Baidoa he would step aside as soon as there is a new president.
"A new page of Somalia history is now open," said Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, the U.N.'s special envoy to Somalia, calling on all Somali's to support Yusuf in his "patriotic and courageous decision."
"I also invite them to take this opportunity to rise above their differences. Time is for unity and solidarity," Abdallah said in a statement.
FIGHTING KILLS DOZENS
The international community is pushing the various political factions in Somalia to end their feuding and unite in a broad government which can work for peace after 17 years of fighting.
Madobe said the government would talk with "any opposition group." Prime Minister Hussein said it was "a positive step for democracy."
Analysts say Yusuf's departure coupled with the planned withdrawal of Ethiopian soldiers is a window of opportunity to bring Islamist insurgents into the political fold. But if this fails, another violent chapter beckons for Somalia.
There was more fighting on Monday. Moderate Islamists clashed in central Somalia with fighters from the hardline al Shabaab Islamists and insurgents shelled the capital Mogadishu.
Residents said at least 15 people died in fighting between the Islamist groups, taking the death toll to 48 in the past three days. In Mogadishu, 10 people died in an exchange of mortar shells between Islamists and government forces.
The Islamist group Ahlu Sunna Waljamaca has pledged to oust al Shabaab, which is on Washington's list of foreign terrorist groups, accusing them of killing religious leaders and desecrating graves, acts they say are against Islamic teachings.
Yusuf had become increasingly unpopular at home and abroad and was blamed by Washington, Europe and African neighbors for stalling a U.N.-hosted peace process. Yusuf returned to his homeland in the semi-autonomous northern Puntland region.
He had been at loggerheads with the prime minister over the government's composition and was accused of undermining Hussein's attempts to engage with moderate Islamists.
By bringing Islamists into government, Hussein hopes to marginalize what he sees as a small rump of hardline fighters.
"If the new parliament is persuaded to be made inclusive and the selection process stands up to scrutiny, then there is a real hope," said a Western diplomat in the region.
(Additional reporting by Abdi Sheikh, Abdi Guled in Mogadishu, David Clarke in Nairobi, Writing by David Clarke; Editing by Richard Balmforth)