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Islamists vow to attack Somalia peace meeting
Somalia's President Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed (R) talks to the chairman of the Hawiye council of elders, Haji Abdi Iman at the presidential palace in Mogadishu July 12, 2007. The two leaders held a joint news conference vowing that a widely national reconciliation conference will be held undeterred.
MOGADISHU, 13 Jul 2007 - Delegates from across Somalia are pouring into Mogadishu for a major reconciliation meeting on Sunday, seen as the government's last hope at securing peace and strengthening its legitimacy in the Horn of Africa nation.
But expectations for the gathering are low amid an insurgent threat to attack the conference venue and the widely held belief that violence will not end until Somalia's interim government sits down to talk with its Islamist foes.
The gathering of more than 1,000 elders, ex-warlords and politicians has been postponed twice over security concerns, which have not diminished. Roadside blasts, suicide bombings and assassinations are now an almost daily fixture of life in the coastal capital.
Islamist insurgents regularly attack government troops, their Ethiopian military allies and African Union peacekeepers from Uganda in a their bid to restore the Islamic rule they briefly imposed last year.
They vowed on Friday to disrupt Sunday's meeting and foil any attempt by the government to cement its grip on the country.
"We will hit the government harder than we did on Wednesday," Islamist commander Maalim Hashi Mohamed told Reuters by satellite telephone from an undisclosed location.
"They are criminals who have sold our country to Ethiopia. We will only talk once our country is free," he said.
News on Wednesday that the meeting would finally go ahead brought a barrage of mortar attacks on the presidential palace and the conference venue itself, an old bullet-scarred police compound freshened up with new paint for the occasion.
"We are warning people against attending the talks because it is a government project only aimed at getting donor funds," Mohamed said.
President Abdullahi Yusuf's interim government has struggled to impose authority on the chaotic country since ousting the hardline Islamic Courts movement from the capital in late December.
It hopes that by drawing Somalia's myriad clans to substantial talks it can win broad support -- no easy task in a nation that has foiled 13 previous attempts to establish central rule since dictator Mohamed Siad Barre's 1991 overthrow.
Yusuf told reporters on Thursday that "even if a nuclear bomb explodes in Mogadishu," the conference would go ahead.
But some residents of the impoverished, rubble-strewn city overlooking the Indian Ocean said the administration had gotten it wrong, and should be talking to the Islamists -- who ruled much of southern Somalia for six months last year -- instead.
"This is a lost opportunity," Abdi Yusuf, 60, told Reuters. "The government and the Islamic Courts are the main rivals. They have to meet for genuine peace to be achieved. If not, the killings will continue unabated."
A European Union delegation visited Mogadishu on Wednesday, praised the conference preparations and said they would return to the capital for an opening ceremony on Sunday.
Other diplomats and security experts who track Somalia said they feared the chance of an attack was just too high to risk the trip. Anyway, many expect the meeting to be adjourned quickly while the government buys time to organise itself.
Mogadishu , one of the world's most dangerous cities, has hosted very few big meetings, so hotel business is booming and ruined buildings are being repaired as delegates arrive.
Hundreds of clan representatives were already in the city, while others were expected overnight or on Saturday.
But many feared little would be achieved.
"Nothing concrete will come out of these talks," said one Somali political analyst who asked not to be identified. "If the (Islamic) Courts were there it would have been positive. Unless a miracle happens, it will be a futile meeting."