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Saturday, June 10, 2006

Somali Islamist militia advances; US calls meeting

MOGADISHU, June 10 (Reuters) - Days after winning control of Mogadishu, an Islamist militia advanced on Friday towards the last stronghold of secular warlords, Jowhar.

The coalition of warlords are widely believed to be backed by Washington and their defeat is seen as a setback for U.S. policy.

The United States called an international meeting next week in New York to discuss strategy on Somalia, bringing together officials from the United Nations, Europe and Africa.

Residents said the militia, who won control of the Somali capital on Monday after driving out the warlords, advanced overnight closer to the warlord stronghold of Jowhar, 90 km (55 miles) to the north.

"Our forces have moved towards the warlord forces," said Siyad Mohamed, one of the leaders of the Islamic militia.

Jowhar warlords, reinforced by defeated allies, pushed southwards from the town on Thursday to the village of Qalimoy.

"The (warlord) coalition took their remaining weapons and militia from the town to strengthen their defence in Qalimoy after word came that the Islamic courts were advancing towards Jowhar," said Abdi Warsame, a farmer.

Islamist leader Mohamed said: "If their movements continue, we will have no option but to attack them because they are preparing to attack us."

As the rivals squared up, at least five people were killed in an apparently unrelated clash at a checkpoint in Baidoa between local militiamen and guards loyal to President Abdullahi Yusuf, a spokesman for the interim government said.

Yusuf was not present during the clash in the town, which is home to Somalia's interim government, too weak to enter the capital.


Washington has long viewed Somalia as a potential shelter for Islamic militants but it said this week it might be open to dealing with the Islamic militia, signalling a possible new approach.

Asked why the meeting of the "Somalia Contact Group" was taking place now, U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said: "We think it's the right time ...

"The goal of this group is to promote concerted action and coordination to support the Somalia transitional federal institutions, and so we are going to be working with other interested states and international organisations on this matter."

McCormack said Somali groups were unlikely to attend the New York talks, but the invitation list was not finished.

The Islamist victory, after three months of fighting that killed 350 people, dislodged the warlords for the first time since they ousted military ruler Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991.

Washington, which has shied away from direct involvement in Somalia since the humiliating exit of U.S. and U.N. troops in 1994, has refused to discuss reports that it is funnelling $100,000 a month to the warlords, but says it will support anyone fighting terrorism.

The think-tank Power and Interest News Report said Washington faced a dilemma on whom to support.

"At this stage, it appears Washington is unsure of how to proceed in this conflict, stuck between whether to provide further support to the largely discredited warlords or to open up a dialogue with the Islamic militias," it said in a brief.

"If it chooses the former, violent clashes will resume as the two umbrella groups fight for control."
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