A hardline opposition leader appeared in Somalia's capital Friday for the first time in almost two years and said he was ruling out peace talks with the government unless African Union peacekeepers leave the country.
Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys, who has been accused of al-Qaida links, told hundreds of his supporters that African Union peacekeepers should leave Somalia or face attacks, a statement likely to raise tensions in Mogadishu, which has seen reduced fighting in recent weeks.
Wearing all-white traditional Islamic clothing and a white skull cap, Aweys spoke outside a police station under the control of his group. Militiamen armed with assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers stood guard.
Aweys returned to Mogadishu Thursday for the first time since 2006. He had been based in Eritrea's capital, Asmara, after Ethiopian troops drove him and his supporters from strongholds in southern Somalia and Mogadishu.
"We will only have talks with the government once all political differences are resolved, including the presence of foreign troops. Then Somalis can come together and determine their own future," Aweys told the crowd of largely women and children.
"We ask them (the peacekeepers) to leave our country or be ready for a war," said Aweys. "Let me make it clear. We do not want any foreign troops in our land. They do not keep peace, they are invaders. So I call on all foreign troops to leave our country."
Ending the suffering
The AU's 4,350-strong force in Mogadishu has a restricted mandate to guard key government officials and installations such as the seaport, airport and presidential palace, but hardline groups have always seen it as an invading force.
Aweys' faction is a part of the Islamic Party, a group that is opposed to the government of President Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed but has not targeted AU troops. An extremist Islamic group, al-Shabab, has been attacking the AU troops.
AU peacekeeping force spokesman Bahoku Barigye dismissed Aweys' statement.
"Aweys and other people thinking like him were here for many years and they could do nothing for the suffering Somalis," said Barigye. "We agree the problem in Somalia can be solved only by the Somalis, but with the assistance of the international community Somalia can get back on its feet."
Government officials were not immediately available for comment.
Aweys, who has been designated a terrorist by a U.N. Security Council resolution, led an umbrella Islamic group that controlled the capital and much of the south for six months before being chased from power in December 2006 by Ethiopian troops supporting the virtually powerless central government.
The Islamic leader has repeatedly denied having ties to international terrorists.
Aweys then supported an Iraq-style Islamic insurgency. The insurgency has lost most of its steam with the withdrawal of Ethiopian troops in January and the election of a moderate Islamic leader as president the same month under an intricate U.N.-mediated peace deal. Influential Islamic clerics have also declared their support for the new leader, further diffusing the insurgency.
Somalia has not had an effective government since 1991.