Prominent Islamist returns to Somalia after two-year exile

Prominent Islamist returns to Somalia after two-year exileNairobi - A prominent Islamist opposition leader returned to Somalia on Thursday after two years in exile, raising hopes that the conflict-hit African nation's new government could succeed in restoring a semblance of order.

Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys flew into Mogadishu with little fanfare as top officials, including President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed and United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, attended a conference in Brussels.

Donors at the conference on Thursday pledged 213 million dollars to support the African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia and boost the police force and judiciary.

Aweys, who the US says is a terrorist with links to al-Qaeda, fled to Eritrea in early 2007 after Ethiopian forces ousted the Union of Islamic Courts, of which he was a leader.

Sheikh Sharif was also a leader of the UIC, and the two men formed the Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia (ARS) together after the UIC fell.

However, they split when Sheikh Sharif - the more moderate of the two - took part in the UN-sponsored peace process that saw him elected as president in January after Ethiopia pulled its forces out.

Aweys will be staying with the Hizb al-Islamiya political party while in Mogadishu.

While the influential cleric has not yet indicated his intentions, analysts say he could well help boost the chances of peace.

"He is one of the missing pieces of the big coalition for peace in Somalia," Roger Middleton, a Horn of African security analyst, told the German Press Agency dpa. "Having him there is a good thing, as they can talk to him, but it depends what he does."

One of the key elements needed to bring peace to Somalia is to get militant group al-Shabaab, a breakaway group from the UIC which has been fighting a bloody insurgency since early 2007, to lay down its arms.

Even if Aweys gets on board with the government, his support is not guaranteed to end al-Shabaab's struggle.

"It (al-Shabaab) is so fragmented and has not much of unified command," said Middleton. "But in terms of the al-Shabaab rank and file, Aweys coming back and joining the government could have a positive effect."

Somalia has been embroiled in chaos since the 1991 ouster of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre.

The insurgency has claimed the lives of over 15,000 civilians since early 2007 and the insecurity has helped feed an explosion of piracy in the Gulf of Aden. (dpa)