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Somali peace talks open in Djibouti


Talks aimed at restoring peace in Somalia, which has lacked a central government since 1991, opened here Tuesday, with up to 400 delegates taking part.

The conference, held a fortnight later than originally scheduled, is the first stage of a peace plan drawn up by President Ismail Omar Guelleh of Djibouti.

The plan enjoys the backing of much of the international community but has been shunned by several of the most important warlords who have carved up Somalia into fiefdoms.

This conference is the 13th such meeting to be held since the fall of president Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991.

After a reading from the Koran, the opening ceremony was held under a large tent as heavy rains fell. Guelleh was later due to make the first speech.

Representatives of the United Nations and various governments, notably those of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, an east African body prominent in peace-broking, were present in Arta, some 30 kilometers (20 miles) south of Djibouti city.

Most of the Somali delegates present are members of the Hawiyeh clan, which has a strong presence around Mogadishu and in the centre of the country.

Only one of Somalia's major warlords, Ali Mahdi Mohammed, whose men control north Mogadishu, was in Djibouti. All others have rejected Guelleh's initiative.

The plan differs from its predecessors in shifting focus from the warlords to civil society.

"That's a good start, but they (the delegates) should not leave this place without reaching an agreement," said Sudan's foreign minister, Moustafa Osmane Ismail.

Guelleh's plan also calls for the appointment of a parliament, which would nominate an interim president. Speaking in Mogadishu on Tuesday, warlord Osman Hassan Ali "Atto" warned that if this were to happen, he would be forced to "fight aggressively."

Thousands of people were killed in clashes after Ali Mahdi Mohammed was named interim president of Somalia during a conference in Djibouti in 1991.

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