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Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Somali govt allies hunt Islamist clerics, talks off

MOGADISHU (Reuters) - Northern Somali authorities loyal to the interim government on Tuesday hunted down clerics trying to spread the grip of Mogadishu-based Islamists, and peace talks scheduled for Sudan were put on hold.

The Islamists asked for a two-week delay in Arab League-brokered talks in Khartoum with the government, now past a Monday deadline to form a cabinet after its dissolution for non-performance last week.

The Islamists, who rule Mogadishu and a key swathe of southern Somalia through sharia courts backed by disciplined militias, have vowed to spread Islamic law across the Horn of Africa nation of 10 million.

That has put them at odds with the shaky interim government, a fractious, secular administration that has struggled to impose authority anywhere in the country except at its temporary base in the south-central trading town of Baidoa.

Police in the self-governed northern Puntland state, once ruled by Somali President Abdullahi Yusuf, were tracking Sheikh Ahmed Shanle after he announced the formation of a sharia court in Las Anood district on Sunday.

"The sheikh and his group escaped, but the police will catch and bring them to justice," Puntland police officer Abdullahi Jama told reporters.

Two journalists who reported on the opening of the court were arrested on Monday, but later freed, local reporter Abdullahi Yasin told Reuters.

Puntland, which covers northeastern Somalia and is the tip of the Horn of Africa, has been self-governed for years and is relatively stable by the standards of a country mired in anarchy since the 1991 overthrow of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre.

Though its leaders have quarrelled with Yusuf, a Puntland native, they share a common enemy in the Mogadishu Islamists.


On Monday in Puntland's main port, Bossaso, police jailed another cleric and 10 of his followers who were trying to open a sharia court, authorities said.

The Islamists accuse the government of being a puppet of Ethiopia, and say the presence of Ethiopian troops in Baidoa and elsewhere on Somali soil is proof of that. They refuse to negotiate with the government until the troops leave.

"Under the excuse of the Ethiopian troops, they are not going to the Khartoum talks, but in a sense, this suits their policy of slow, quiet consolidation," said a Western diplomat.

The diplomat said the Islamists were "very, very cunning" in biding their time to get stronger, thus giving the government little choice but to accept Ethiopia's backing -- and direction.

The government accuses the Islamists of al Qaeda links and planning to usurp its legal authority through a military campaign cloaked in the guise of spreading Islamic law.

An Arab League official blamed the Islamists for further delaying the peace talks, originally set for mid-July.

"We are not happy with the new position of the Islamic courts. They are the only side responsible for postponing the negotiations," said Samir Hosni, the League's Somalia pointman.
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