Somali government signs peace deal to end 17-year conflict

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SOMALIA'S government has signed a peace deal with an alliance of opposition groups, a United Nations envoy said last night, in a deal that could bring an end to 17 years of conflict.

Ahmedou Ould Abdallah, the UN envoy to Somalia, said the government and the Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia agreed at talks in Djibouti to cease violence for three months.

The deal will see Ethiopian troops withdraw from Somalia within 120 days.

The opposition sees the Ethiopians, who have been in Somalia since 2006 to help government forces deal with an Islamic insurgency, as an occupying force in Somalia.

However, it remains to be seen if the agreement will be respected by hardline members of the opposition, who have denounced those who took part in the UN-led negotiations.

Al-Shabab, the military wing of Somalia's ousted Islamic movement, did not participate in the Djibouti talks.

The government's deal with the opposition Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia came after hours of rumours that the talks had collapsed over the issue of Ethiopian troops.

Both sides agreed to "end all acts of armed confrontation" within 30 days and to act within 120 days to withdraw Ethiopian troops once a UN peacekeeping force is deployed.

"The deal is a splendid step toward peace," said Ahmed Abdisalam, the Somali information minister and head of the government negotiating team. "The Somalis and the international community should now work toward turning it into a reality."

Somalia has been in a state of anarchy since warlords overthrew the dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991 and then turned on each other.

The shaky transitional government was formed in 2004 with the help of the UN, but has failed to assert any real control. After Islamic militants seized control of the capital, Mogadishu, and most of southern Somalia, the government called in troops from neighbouring Ethiopia in December 2006 to oust them.

A vicious insurgency started soon after and remains a potent and disruptive force in the country and a continuing threat to the government, which is backed by both the European Union and the United States.