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Saturday, September 30, 2006

Islamists extend authority in Somalia

AFGOYE, Somalia, Sept 30 (Reuters) - A Somali cleric handed over a region under his control to powerful Islamists on Saturday, further extending the movement's authority over southern Somalia.

In a ceremony attended by hundreds in the town of Afgoye, 30 kms (18 miles) from Mogadishu, Sheikh Yusuf Mohamed Siad, known as "Inda'ade", handed over the fertile agriculture area of Lower Shabelle, which he had governed for the last few years.

Although his fighters played a key role in the fight for Mogadishu, which the Islamists seized from U.S.-backed warlords in June, Inda'ade had previously distanced himself from the movement, saying he was a just a supporter.

"This region is in the hands of the Islamic courts as of today," Inda'ade, now in charge of security for the Islamists, told the crowd gathered under a tree.

"Whatever happens from today, good or bad, will fall on the shoulders of the Islamic courts."

The Islamists have rapidly expanded their influence, effectively flanking the Western-backed interim government, based in the provincial town of Baidoa, on three sides.

They seized the port of Kismayo, 500 kms (310 miles) from Mogadishu, on Monday without firing a shot. Many Somalis have been puzzled as to why the Islamists had taken control of faraway towns and not Lower Shabelle, closer to Mogadishu.

Inda'ade told Reuters he had handed over his fighters and his technicals -- pickups mounted with guns.

"I have only two technicals for my own safety," he said.


Senior Islamist Sheikh Sharif Ahmed told the cheering crowd how the new leadership would administer the region.

"We will start with security first, then we will go to the judiciary and then we will set up an administration," he said.

"The troops of the Lower Shabelle are part of the Islamic Courts Union's Army. They are ready to go into the trenches against Ethiopia," he added.

Islamists leaders have repeatedly urged Somalis to defend their country against an Ethiopian military presence.

Witnesses say Ethiopia -- long the most powerful country in the region -- is bolstering the interim government by sending troops to Baidoa. Addis Ababa denies this.

Somali Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi said on Friday Kenya and Ethiopia would help if the Islamists attacked Baidoa.

Kenyan media on Saturday quoted foreign affairs ministry officials as saying the country's armed forces were maintaining a round-the-clock surveillance on the border with Somalia.

The Somali interim administration -- the 14th attempt at restoring effective central rule since the 1991 ouster of a dictator -- views the Kismayo takeover as a breach of a ceasefire agreed at talks in Sudan.

The Islamists' arrival in Kismayo has been met with several protests. On Thursday they forcibly closed a private broadcaster, accusing it of distorting news about the protests.

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