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Sunday, December 17, 2006

Somalian leader accuses rival Islamists of allowing al-Qaida to 'set up shop'

BAIDOA, Somalia (CP) - Peace talks with Somalia's Islamic movement are no longer an option, the president said Friday, warning that the group is allowing al-Qaida terrorists to "set up shop" in the Horn of Africa.

"This is a new chapter and part of the terror group's plan to wage war against the West," Abdullahi Yusuf told The Associated Press during a rare interview at his heavily guarded office in western Somalia.

Tension has mounted in recent weeks between Somalia's government, which has international recognition but little authority, and the Council of Islamic Courts, which controls most of southern Somalia. The United States has said the Islamic movement has links to al-Qaida; Islamic leaders have repeatedly denied it.

"We do not give protection to these criminals," Islamic courts spokesman Abdirahin Ali Mudey said.

Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay issued a statement in Ottawa saying: "Canada is deeply concerned about the deteriorating situation and rising tensions in Somalia."

He urged all parties to "settle their differences through negotiated, rather than military means."

Somalia has not had an effective government since warlords overthrew dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991, plunging the country into anarchy. The government was formed in 2004 with the help of the United Nations, but it has struggled to assert its authority.

The Islamic courts movement has vowed to launch a holy war starting Tuesday unless Ethiopian troops supporting the government leave Somalia. Ethiopia, a largely Christian country, fears the emergence of a neighbouring Islamic state and has acknowledged sending military advisers - though not a fighting force - to help the government.

Experts fear the conflict could engulf the already volatile Horn of Africa. A recent UN report said 10 countries have been sending weapons to the warring sides in Somalia.

War would hit an already devastated country where one in five children die before age five from preventable diseases. The impoverished country also is struggling to recover from the worst flood season in East Africa in 50 years.

"The fighting can happen at any time now," Yusuf said, adding that peace talks were impossible now that the Islamic leaders have declared war on his government. The sides have held several rounds of talks in Khartoum, Sudan, but have failed to produce any lasting effect.

"They are the ones who effectively closed the door to peace talks and they are the ones who are waging the war," Yusuf said of the Islamic council, noting that his administration would not attack first. Baidoa, the only town the government controls, is surrounded by fighters loyal to the Islamic group.

"We are not under the illusion that peace is possible," Yusuf said.

In September, Yusuf survived a suicide car bomb attack - the first of its kind in Somalia - that killed his younger brother. The president blamed al-Qaida and said it only strengthened his resolve to defeat Islamic extremism.

Late Friday, an explosion rocked the capital, Mogadishu, which is controlled by the Islamic courts, but the cause was not immediately known. Sheik Muqtar Robow, the Islamic group's deputy defence chief, said nobody was injured but his forces had sealed off the area and were investigating.

More than 100 government troops defected to the Islamic courts in the capital on Friday.

"We could not bear the extreme conditions we were living in," said Farhan Abshir Malin. "Ethiopian troops have been harassing us. Now we are ready to fight side by side with Islamic courts."

Sheik Muqtar Robow, deputy defence chief for the Islamic group, said it was his pleasure to "welcome our brothers who have repented after being misled."

Meanwhile, Islamic leaders in Mogadishu distributed sermons about holy war to be read at the city's mosques - the latest attempt to galvanize the country as it slides toward war.

"The sermon concerns the holy war on Ethiopian troops inside Somalia," Islamic official Sheik Hussein Abdullahi Barre told the AP.

The sermon, which was written in Arabic, said "infidels want to put out the light of Allah by trying to force us to follow their way, democracy . . . Oh God give pride to Muslims and humiliate the enemies of your religion."

The president said his government was the only legitimate authority in Somalia.

"It is totally misguided not to accept the government, he said, adding: "The alternative is chaos."
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