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Last Updated: Wednesday, 17 January 2007, 01:05 GMT
Somalis pin peace hopes on Yemen
By Ginny Hill
BBC News, Yemen

UNHCR refugee camp
At least 84,000 Somalis are registered as refugees in Yemen

Gamma Ali Hassan arrived in Yemen one week ago, after a dangerous sea crossing from the north coast of Somalia.

When she set out from home in the middle of December, the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) still controlled the Somali capital, Mogadishu.

Gamma was crammed into a small fishing boat during a two-day journey in the Gulf of Aden while the Islamic Courts retreated from the Ethiopian army.

"I left Mogadishu because life under the Islamic Courts was so harsh and I was afraid there would be more fighting. But I would never have uprooted myself and risked my life if I'd known that the Islamists would fall so quickly. I can see that Somalia is changing."

Now, Gamma is hoping that Yemen's President, Ali Abdullah Saleh, will be able to bring Somalia's warring factions together around the negotiating table.

Multi-party talks are due to take place later this month in the horn of Africa and Mr Saleh has emerged as a possible peace-broker.

The presence in Yemen of three senior figures from the UIC is lending weight to Mr Saleh's role.

Only one of the trio has been named - the UIC's foreign affairs spokesman Ibrahim Adow. The other two men are rumoured to be moderates, and all three are considered key to building a future centrist government in Somalia.

Despite fears of ongoing insurgency in Somalia, the Islamists are committed to negotiations and willing to talk peace, according to one Yemeni official.

Credible partner

The international community is throwing its weight behind Yemen's peace-making efforts.

Map of Yemen

Diplomats in Sanaa emphasise that Mr Saleh has been careful to maintain strong links with all parties in the conflict and is seen as a credible partner by all sides.

"There is a willingness on the part of all Somali factions to engage with the Yemenis," says one Western diplomatic source.

"Over the past year, the heads of Somaliland, Puntland, the transitional federal government and the Islamic Courts have all been here for talks."

"Mr Saleh is a master of brinkmanship," says another observer. "He has plenty of experience cutting deals with the various Yemeni tribes, but it remains to be seen whether he can have any impact at this crucial moment with the Somalis."

Refugee crisis

Like all Somalia's neighbours, Yemen clearly has its own interests at stake in this latest attempt to resolve the 16-year conflict.

Since the outbreak of the civil war in Somalia in 1991, Yemen has offered automatic refugee status to Somalis fleeing regular clashes and outbreaks of fighting.

Mohammed Abdi Gedi
I would go home tomorrow if I had the money
Mohammad Abdi Gedi

The UN's refugee agency (UNHCR) says there are 84,000 registered refugees in Yemen. The government estimates the true figure is closer to 300,000.

But Yemen is the poorest country in the Arab world, with 40% unemployment, dwindling natural resources and rapid rate of population growth. Its weak economy is struggling to absorb the influx of newcomers.

In 2006, the numbers of new arrivals hit unprecedented levels with 23,000 men, women and children reaching Yemen's southern beaches.

Passengers paid $50 a head to ruthless smugglers, enduring random beatings on over-crowded boats. More than 360 people died at sea during the last 12 months and 300 are recorded as missing.

Clan divisions

Yemen and Somalia share historic ties that stretch back to the last century, when large numbers of Yemenis migrated to the Horn of Africa. They settled there, established businesses and married into Somali families. The two countries still maintain close trading links.

Now, the Somali community in Yemen is divided about the prospects for peace in their homeland. Opinion is largely determined by clan allegiances.

Mohammad Abdi Gedi has lived in Yemen for 12 years and views the retreat of the Islamic Courts with optimism. "I think the situation in Somalia is much better than before and I would go home tomorrow if I had the money," he says.

"The people are tired of the warlords and they are ready to unite against the Ethiopians. There's a real chance now for President Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed's interim government."

Somali children at the UNHCR refugee camp
The Yemeni government estimates actual number of refugees is 300,000
Mohammad Gedi belongs to the Daroud clan, the same tribal grouping as Mr Abdullahi.

But Sanaa community leader Mohammed Ali Hersi is from a different ethnic network, in Somaliland.

"The people will never accept a solution that involves Abdullahi Yusuf," he says. "The Americans are wrong to support him."

"Somalis here in Yemen like the idea of fresh peace talks. People need hope and President Saleh does have experience in bringing the different groups together," he adds.

"However, the result is always the same. The Somali factions will agree with one another at the table but will start the war as soon as they return home."


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