Somali opposition forms new "liberation" movement

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ASMARA, Sep 12 (Reuters) Somali opposition figures meeting in Eritrea united to form a new ''liberation'' movement today to seek a military or diplomatic solution to conflict in their homeland, a spokesman said.

The main aim of the organisation, called The Alliance For The Liberation Of Somalia, is to secure the exit of Ethiopian troops who are backing the interim government in Somalia.

''We have two-track options -- first is the liberation of Somalia through military struggle, the second is through diplomatic efforts,'' said spokesman Zakariya Mahamud Abdi.

''I would warn the Ethiopian occupying forces to withdraw. It's now or never ... We have no military machines, but we have Somalis who are armed to the teeth ... An armed people cannot be defeated,'' he told reporters in Asmara.

About 400 opposition figures, from Islamists to an ex-deputy prime minister, have been meeting in Eritrea for a week to unify and plot strategy to get Ethiopian troops out of Somalia.

Thousands of Ethiopian soldiers crossed the border last year to help the interim government chase out an Islamic Courts movement ruling Mogadishu and most of the south for six months.

The Somali opposition conference delegates have expressed sympathy towards Islamist-led insurgents fighting allied Ethiopian and government troops since the start of 2007.

''It's in the interest of the (Ethiopian) soldiers to escape now. The sooner the better ... If they give up their arms, we will give them a route to escape,'' Abdi said. ''If the Ethiopians choose to withdraw peacefully then we will have another strategy ... We are the future and they are the past.'' Abdi said the alliance would have 10 executive departments, including a war crimes office and a military wing.

It has elected 195 opposition members to a central committee, but not yet appointed a chairman, he added.

CLERIC CRITICISES U.S.

Among the opposition figures in Eritrea was Somalia's hardline Islamist leader Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, who is on US and UN lists of terrorism suspects and has been in hiding since his sharia courts movement lost power last year.

In an interview with Eritrean state media published today, he criticised Washington.

''I am a Somali nationalist fighting for a free and united Somalia, and this is considered by the U.S. Administration as terrorism,'' Aweys told the Eritrea Profile newspaper.

''The US cannot present any concrete evidence for its unfounded accusations. The only problem is the interference of the United States and its servants, namely the Ethiopian leaders,'' he added.

Regional diplomats believe the United States gave tacit blessing for Ethiopia's entry into Somalia in 2006, although Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has denied that.

Aweys, a cleric, is one of Somalia's survivors. He was a colonel in the army of former dictator Mohamed Siad Barre and was decorated for bravery in a war against Ethiopia in 1977.

By the 1990s, he was leading Somalia's biggest militant Islamist group, al-Ittihad al-Islami. But he was defeated then by Ethiopian forces and Somali warlords, among them Somalia's current interim President Abdullahi Yusuf.

Somalia has been without stable government since the fall of Barre in 1991.

REUTERS RaR RAI2054

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