Somali leaders want Arab, African peacekeepers

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RIYADH, Sep 17 (Reuters) Somali leaders meeting in Saudi Arabia said they wanted to replace foreign forces backing the interim government against rebels with Arab and African troops under the aegis of the United Nations, Saudi media reported.

President Abdullahi Yusuf, Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi and parliament speaker Adam Mohamed Nur signed an agreement in the presence of Saudi King Abdullah in Jeddah late yesterday, after a weeks-long reconciliation conference in Mogadishu.

''No to war, yes to peace. No to bloodshed and yes to reconciliation,'' Yusuf told the meeting, according to Saudi newspapers today.

The pact came days after a rival meeting in Eritrea by an opposition alliance that included leaders of the Islamic courts movement forced from power in Somalia with Ethiopian and US backing. Most rebels boycotted the government conference.

The transition government has been struggling to quell the Islamist insurgency following a December military rout, which has turned parts of Mogadishu into a war zone and triggered a refugee crisis.

Earlier this year, the African Union agreed to dispatch 8,000 peacekeepers to Somalia to replace pro-government Ethiopian troops whose presence has inflamed the insurgency. So far, however, fewer than half the AU troops have arrived.

''We call for joint Arab and African forces under the aegis of the United Nations to take on the responsibility for ensuring peace and security in Somalia,'' Yusuf said, vowing to prevent Islamist militants setting up base in Somalia.

''God willing, we will defeat all difficulties and make Somalia a beautiful and strong country against terrorism and 'errant groups','' he said, using terminology Saudi authorities uses to demonise al Qaeda militants before public opinion.

''If these 'kharijites' seized control of our nascent government, it would be a disaster for the Islamic nation, Arab world, Africa and the international community,'' he said, using a reference to a strict sect in early Islam.

Washington fears the Islamist rebel movement could give al Qaeda a foothold in the Horn of Africa nation which was thrown into chaos by the fall of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991.

Yusuf called on Saudi Arabia, a key US ally, to take part in his government's effort to spread his reconciliation effort over other parts of the country.

Saudi Arabia, flush with cash on booming world oil prices, has sponsored peace efforts in a number of regional hotspots, including Lebanon, Sudan and the Palestinian territories.

Mindful of negative publicity that US involvement has garnered in the Arab world, Saudi Arabia welcomed ''assurances'' it said Yusuf gave that foreign forces would be replaced, an official statement said.

It was not clear if this was a reference to Ethiopian troops. The UN Security Council last month asked the secretary-general's office to develop plans for a possible UN troop presence in Somalia.

There are fears the Somalia conflict could trigger a wider war.

Arch foes Eritrea and Ethiopia have lined up on opposite sides of the conflict, with Eritrea backing the opposition and Ethiopia the government.

REUTERS SKB PM1700

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