Somalia's government signed an agreement Monday with an opposition alliance calling for an end to violence and the withdrawal of Ethiopian troops, whose presence has stoked an increasingly bloody Islamic insurgency.
The deal is an important step toward peace, but it remains to be seen if it will be respected by hard-line members of the opposition who have denounced those who took part in the U.N.-led talks in Djibouti.
Al-Shabab, the military wing of Somalia's ousted Islamic movement, did not participate in the Djibouti talks. The State Department considers al-Shabab, or "The Youth," a terrorist organization.
The Somali government's deal with the opposition Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia came after hours of rumors that the talks had collapsed over the issue of Ethiopian troops, who have been in Somalia since 2006 help government forces deal with Islamic fighters. The opposition sees the Ethiopians as an occupying force.
Under the accord reached late Monday, both sides agreed to "end all acts of armed confrontation" within 30 days and to act within 120 days to remove Ethiopian troops once a U.N. peacekeeping force is deployed.
"The deal is a splendid step toward peace," said Somali Information Minister Ahmed Abdisalam, head of the government negotiating team. "The Somalis and the international community should now work toward turning it into a reality."
Calls to the opposition alliance were not immediately returned.
African Union troops struggle
The U.N. Security Council has said it would consider deploying U.N. peacekeepers to replace African Union troops, if there is improved political reconciliation and security.
The AU force is struggling. It is authorized to have 8,000 soldiers but currently has 2,600 from Uganda and Burundi.
Members of the Security Council visited Djibouti last week to encourage Somalia's government and the opposition alliance to hold direct peace talks.
The opposition ruled out face-to-face talks unless the government set a timetable for the withdrawal of Ethiopian troops, while Somali President Abdullahi Yusuf said Ethiopian forces would not leave until fighting stops and a U.N. peacekeeping force is deployed. The turning point in talks Monday was not immediately clear.
Somalia's shaky transitional government was formed in 2004 with the help of the United Nations, but has failed to assert any real control over the chaotic country. After Islamic militants seized control of the capital, Mogadishu, and most of southern Somalia, the government called in troops from neighboring Ethiopia in December 2006 to oust them.
The insurgency that started soon after remains a potent and disruptive force, and a continuing threat to Yusuf's government, which is backed by both the United States and European Union.
The country also is facing a worsening humanitarian crisis aggravated by high global food prices and drought.