By Sahra Abdi and Richard Lough
NAIROBI (Reuters) - Somalia is open to talks with al Shabaab's top commanders and informal discussions already held suggest a willingness among some militants to lay down arms and negotiate, the country's prime minister said on Friday.
Somalia's beleaguered government is desperate to consolidate security gains after the al Qaeda-linked rebels retreated from the capital Mogadishu last month, as it faces the task of holding elections by August, 2012.
"We are open to dialogue with ... any organization that's going to reach (out) to us, work with us to bring peace and stability to Somalia," Prime Minister Abdiweli Mohamed Ali told Reuters.
"We don't have formal talks with (al Shabaab) but here and there we talk to them and maybe there is some willingness from some of them to lay down their arms and negotiate," Ali said in an interview.
It was too early, he said, to talk about conditions on negotiations or what incentives the government might offer the militants, whose bloody four-year insurgency has led to the deaths of tens of thousands of Somalis.
Some outside experts say al Shabaab is at its weakest since their rebellion was born from the ruins of another hardline Islamist group in 2007, plagued by deepening internal rifts and short on finances.
"You don't talk to foot-soldiers, you negotiate with leaders. The incentive is deal with us first and we will talk later," said Ali, previously a professor of economics in the United States before he joined the U.N.-backed government.
Talk of deal cutting with the rebels may unsettle some Western powers who oppose negotiating with an Islamist rebel force whose ranks have been bolstered by foreign fighters linked directly to al Qaeda.
PITFALLS DOT ROADMAP
Somali leaders adopted a roadmap this week designed to lead to elections within a year and end a string of fragile transition governments that have failed to bring peace or meaningful political reform to the anarchic Horn of Africa nation.
Pitfalls dot the way ahead, not least the reluctance of Somalia's political class to place national interests above clan, rampant graft and the Islamist insurgency that rages on across swathes of southern and central, analysts say.
Ali, however, was confident a new constitution would be ratified by July 1, 2012, ahead of presidential and parliamentary elections by August 20.
"Somalis are ready to move on. We will make sure this roadmap is met, provided the international community comes up with the (financial and security) resources to meet these obligations."
Somalia's spending is heavily funded by external donors as its tax base is effectively restricted to Mogadishu where custom dues from the sea port and airport provide the bulk of revenues.
"A roadmap without resources is a road to nowhere," he said.
Ali's government, and the African peacekeeping force propping it up, have also requested extra troops to secure Mogadishu and quash the Islamist rebellion nationwide.
Ali spoke to Reuters in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, as regional heads of state gathered in the east African country for an emergency regional summit on the famine that the U.N. says is killing hundreds of Somalis daily.
Some 750,000 people, mostly in al Shabaab-held areas, face imminent starvation, according to U.N. estimates.
Ethiopia's Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has said the region's IGAD bloc is ready to contribute to "cross-border operations" that "expand the zone of stability" to ensure food aid reached hungry Somalis in rebel controlled regions.
Ethiopia, whose forces routed an Islamist administration in power in Mogadishu in early 2007, makes regular incursions into Somalia to protect its border but is thought not to be keen to deploy deep inside its neighbor again, analysts say.
The plan has raised concerns among aid groups that aid corridors could be a pretext for military intervention.
Ali said he was not aware of Meles' comments.
"As far as security arrangements with neighboring countries, we work together on defeating this menace, Shabaab, and also to make sure the food aid reaches the people who need it the most," he said.
(Editing by David Clarke)