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Saturday, December 02, 2006

Islamists seize key Somali township, mounting fears of full-scale war

A powerful Islamic movement has seized control of a key Somali township, pushing the Horn of Africa nation currently reeling from devastating floods, closer to an all-out war.

As the international community scrambled to avoid fresh clashes, Islamic forces said they had taken control of Dinsoor, about 270 kilometres (170 miles) west of the capital Mogadishu, after pro-government militia pulled out.

"We are telling you that Dinsoor is under the control of the Islamic courts, so we will never accept anybody to violate the area," said Sheikh Abdurahim Ali Muddey, the spokesman for the Supreme Islamic Council of Somalia (SICS) on Saturday.

"We will take military steps if any force violates the area," he added, referring to transitional government based in Baidoa, about 110 kilometres (69) miles north.

Local Islamic officials said plans were underway to impose Islamic law in the township.

"Mogadishu has sent delegates here. They are telling people that Islamic courts are preparing to take control of the whole region and implement Islamic Sharia law," Osmail Adan Kerrow, a local Islamic commander told AFP from the region's trading post.

Somali government officials protested the advance, saying the Islamists were seeking to provoke new unrest.

"This is provocation, we are still in the stage of calling them to stop" lawmaker Madobe Nunow said.

The seizure, which violates a previous truce and mutual recognition pact between the SICS and the government, comes days after Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi secured parliamentary approval for his plans to fight the Islamists.

Addis Ababa denies deploying thousands of troops across the border but acknowledges sending military advisers and trainers to assist the internationally backed but largely powerless Somali government.

Mainly Christian Ethiopia has watched with growing concern the rise on its southeastern border of the Islamists, who seized Mogadishu in June and now control most of southern and central Somalia.

With a large ethnic Somali population, Ethiopia fears radicalization of its sizable Muslim minority by the Islamists, some of whom are accused of links to Al-Qaeda, who have imposed strict Sharia law in areas they control.

Somali watchers have warned that an all-out war in Somalia would suck in Addis Ababa's chief rival, Eritrea, also accused of supporting the Islamists, thereby pushing war in a regional conflict.

The new development comes as the UN Security Council mulled a United States proposal to lift the 1992 arms embargo to enable African nations send in peacekeepers to protect the government.
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