An exiled leader of Somalia's Islamists has rejected a call by Somalia's new prime minister for talks to try to end 16 years of conflict and stem a year-long insurgency that has killed some 6,000 civilians.
"Our problem is not with the old prime minister or the new prime minister. Our problem is Ethiopia's occupation," said Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, who is now chairman of the opposition Alliance For the Re-Liberation of Somalia (ARS).
Ahmed's Islamist courts' movement ruled Mogadishu for six months last year, until it was routed by Ethiopia's army backing forces from the interim Somali government.
"If the Ethiopian occupation is removed then everything is possible. But before that, it would be fruitless to speak about talks between the prime minister and the opposition," Ahmed said in an interview in Eritrea late on Tuesday.
Somalian Prime Minister Nur Hassan Hussein has had a rocky start since being appointed 11 days ago.
Five ministers have already quit the Cabinet he named at the weekend, in a blow to plans to unify a government paralyzed by nearly three years of in-fighting.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was due to meet Hussein in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa late yesterday.
She was expected to appeal to him to be more inclusive in forming his new government.
Hussein took over from Ali Mohamed Gedi, who quit after a feud with the president that frustrated their Western backers.
Hardline Islamists have led an insurgency against the government and Ethiopian troops throughout this year. A rights group said this week nearly 6,000 civilians had died in fighting in Mogadishu, which has also seen a massive refugee exodus.
UN officials say the humanitarian crisis in Somalia is Africa's worst with red tape and restrictions hampering the supply of aid to hundreds of thousands uprooted by the fighting.
Restrictions on UN World Food Program (WFP) supplies to the Lower Shabelle region were lifted yesterday, a day after the Somali government blocked two shiploads of food to the area.
Regional governor Abdulqadir Sheikh Mohamed said the government security agency had reached an agreement with WFP.
Humanitarian workers have long complained that the government has held up aid to needy Somalis by demanding to inspect shipments or requiring exorbitant fees at checkpoints.
Meanwhile, Somalian President Abdullahi Yusuf was exercising and walking around his hospital room yesterday, one day after being admitted in Kenya with a severe cold and coughing, officials said.
Yusuf -- who gives his age as 72 but is said by some to be nearer 80 -- has had chronic health problems for years, including a liver transplant in 1996. Last year, he survived a suicide car bombing that killed his brother and several other people.
"He was exercising in his room, walking in his room," Mohamed Ali Nur, Somalia's ambassador to Kenya, said in Nairobi. "His condition is very fine."
Yusuf will head to London this week for his regular checkup stemming from the liver transplant, Nur said.
But a diplomat tracking Somalia said officials were hiding the truth after Yusuf was flown into Nairobi on Tuesday.
"He is very, very bad. His stomach is inflated 10 centimeters and he is permanently on an oxygen mask," the diplomat said, citing conversations with Somali officials yesterday. "They are deliberately hiding the news."
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