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Somali peace talks to resume over the weekend

SOMALIA, May 29 – The Somali government and its main political opposition will resume peace talks this weekend in Djibouti, the UN announced, as clashes continued between Islamist insurgents and Ethiopian-backed Somali government troops.

The second phase of negotiations will open on Saturday followed by a UN Security Council delegation visit on June 2-3, the UN special envoy for Somalia, Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, said in a statement.

The UN visitors will then move on to other African trouble spots in Sudan, Chad and Democratic Republic of Congo.

Somalia has been devastated by almost uninterrupted civil conflict since the 1991 ouster of former president Mohamed Siad Barre. At least a dozen peace initiatives have collapsed.

The first round of talks ended on May 16 with little to show for it. The feuding sides issued a joint statement pledging "to put aside their differences to facilitate unhindered humanitarian access and the delivery of assistance to the people with immediate effect."

Although that call went unheeded, Ould-Abdallah said Wednesday the "responsible statement" was a good start for the rivals who have made the country a scene of relentless fighting for 17 years.

"The process may create strains in some circles of Somali society but peace should prevail between brothers, depending on the wisdom and patriotism of Somalis both inside and outside the country," the UN official said.

In Djibouti, Ould-Abdallah has pledged to keep working to build trust between the two sides, even if Islamist leaders and allied hardline clans are boycotting the talks as they did during the last round of talks in 2007.

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The fresh drive to bring all parties to the negotiating table comes after Nur Hassan Hussein replaced Ali Mohamed Gedi as prime minister.

The talks will be held against a backdrop of daily clashes pitting Islamist insurgents against Ethiopian-backed Somali government troops and African Union peacekeepers.

In Mogadishu meanwhile, insurgents attacked a police station on Wednesday, killing four officers and losing one fighter in ensuing clashes, witnesses and an Islamist spokesman said.

Fighters used heavy machine-gun fire and hurled hand grenades into the station in Madina district, the latest in a series of attacks in the capital.

"I saw four dead bodies of Somali policemen in front of the station. The insurgents took control of the area briefly and were chanting Allah Akbar (God is Great)," said Ali Mohamed Ibrahim, a witness.

Another witness Hassan Moalim confirmed the same death toll.

Islamist spokesman Abdirahin Isse Ado said his fighters lost one man, but gave a higher toll of police fatalities.

"Our forces raided a police station in Madina neighbourhood and they killed five policemen and one of our fighters was martyred in the raid," he told AFP by phone.

According to international rights groups and aid agencies, at least 6,000 civilians have died in the fighting over the past year.

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Just over 2,600 Ugandan and Burundian troops are deployed in Somalia on an African Union mission, far short of the 8,000 troops pledged by the pan-African body’s member countries. The contingent has been unable to curb the violence.

The UN has warned that 2.6 million people in Somalia face acute food shortages and would require urgent humanitarian assistance to avoid a catastrophe.

The figure is expected to reach 3.5 million by year’s end because of a prolonged drought and fast rising inflation.

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