August 4, 2009 / 12:07 PM / 10 years ago

INTERVIEW-Eritrea wants peaceful Somalia, denies meddling

* Sanctions threat against Eritrea will not work * Somali government doomed to fail

* Now is the time for inclusive political dialogue

By David Clarke

NAIROBI, Aug 4 (Reuters) - Eritrea wants a peaceful and united Somalia and believes now is the best time in nearly two decades to foster genuine political dialogue involving all in the Horn of African nation, Eritrea’s information minister said.

Washington’s new top diplomat for Africa has been seeking to engage with Eritrea, and met the country’s foreign minister in Libya last month, but has also blamed Asmara for fuelling conflict that has plagued Somalia since 1992.

Eritrea has repeatedly denied it is helping arm al Shabaab insurgents fighting Somalia’s latest transition government and bristles at calls for U.N. sanctions against the small nation that borders Ethiopia, Djibouti and Sudan.

"I don’t think that in this 21st century the philosophy of carrot and stick will work," Information Minister Ali Abdu told Reuters, when asked what his message to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would be during her visit to Africa this week.

"In this 21st century, people could have differences but they can agree to disagree and respect each other, instead of using the carrot and stick," he said in a telephone interview.

Eritrea’s arch foe in Horn of Africa is Ethiopia — Washington’s main ally in the region.

Ali said Ethiopia, rather than Eritrea, should be sanctioned for meddling in Somalia. U.N. and U.S. accusations against Asmara originated from retrograde "interest groups", and probably did not reflect Obama administration policy, he said.

The two nations are embroiled in a border dispute that has been rumbling since Eritrea won independence from Ethiopia in the early 1990s after a 30-year war.

Some analysts and diplomats believe Eritrea and Ethiopia are fighting a proxy war in Somalia — with Asmara backing rebels who want to impose their own harsh version of sharia law and Addis Ababa supporting pro-government militia.



DOOMED TO FAIL

Ali said the latest Somali transition government, born out of a U.N.-hosted peace process in Djibouti in January, was doomed to fail because it was imposed by foreign powers.

"The Eritrean objective is to see a peaceful, stable and united Somalia. You can’t do this by imposing external governments against the choice of the Somali people," he said.

"And whatever might, and whatever power, and whatever money you have, you can’t impose your liking on the entire people. That’s why the Somali people are going from war to war."

The government, led by former Islamist rebel Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, only controls a few blocks of the capital Mogadishu and some towns in central Somalia. Al Shabaab and allied militias hold sway in the south and parts of the capital.

President Ahmed is supported by African Union troops in Mogadishu and his own forces are being armed by Washington. The United States fears Somalia will become a safe haven for al Qaeda-linked militants if the government collapses.

"I don’t think it will survive, because it’s not legal," said Ali. "Let us support a genuine political process that is not encumbered by external interference and that respects the choice of the whole Somali people.

"The best time to allow Somalis to have a genuine political process was 18 years ago. The second best time is now. Otherwise, we will have the same regrets after 18 years." (Additional reporting by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)




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