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Forming government is big step for Somalia

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ARTA, Djibouti — More than 2,000 Somali clan elders, religious leaders, businesspeople and peace activists accomplished Sunday what the men with guns could not or would not: They formed a central government after almost a decade of internecine warfare.

Following a simple inauguration ceremony Sunday, men and women in traditional multicolored robes lined up outside a huge tent to be sworn in as Somalia's first legislators in nine years.

Somalia, which has a population of about 7 million, has had no central government since opposition leaders joined forces to oust Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991. The country then descended into chaos as faction leaders turned against one another.

"This will put an end to violence. There is no war in the country, there's

just some banditry because of a lack of police and central authority," said Ismael Mahamoud Barreh as he waited in the suffocating heat to be sworn in.

The Horn of Africa nation's new 225-member parliament grew out of talks that began May 2 in Arta, 20 miles southwest of Djibouti city. The legislature will continue to meet in Djibouti, which border Somalia, until a suitable location can be found in Somalia and security is guaranteed.

The conference, the brainchild of Djibouti President Ismael Omar Guelleh, is the 13th attempt at finding a solution to Somalia's turmoil. But it is the first to involve religious and traditional leaders and other members of civic society rather than just militia leaders — the key, observers and delegates say, to its apparent success.

Yet while optimism abounded at the dusty tent, Western diplomats and delegates sounded a note of realism.

The country's infrastructure has been virtually destroyed, the parliament has no money, a number of the powerful faction leaders have boycotted the conference and the two leaders of the breakaway regions of Somaliland and Puntland oppose Guelleh's initiative.

"This will put Somalia back on the map but it's not going to be easy," Barreh said. Without a tax base, he estimated that Somalia will need billions in international aid.