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Somalian Islamist leader turns himself in

His cooperation could help the transitional government, officials say. He's held in Kenya.

January 23, 2007|Edmund Sanders | Times Staff Writer

NAIROBI, KENYA — A fugitive Islamist leader praised recently by the U.S. government as a moderate who could bring much-needed public support to Somalia's transitional government has turned himself over to Kenyan authorities, American officials said Monday.

Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, a former teacher who rose to become chairman of the executive council of Somalia's Islamic Courts Union, is being held for questioning at a posh hotel in Nairobi, the officials said.

Ahmed, who functioned as de facto president of the courts, surrendered to Kenyan police Sunday at the border city of Liboi, where thousands of Somalian refugees are waiting to enter refugee camps. Kenyan forces have sealed the border in order to search for fleeing Islamist fighters.

After seizing control of Mogadishu, the Somalian capital, in June, the Islamic courts dissolved last month amid an onslaught by thousands of Ethiopian and Somalian government troops. Top courts leaders, including Ahmed and Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys, went into hiding. Rumors about Ahmed's reemergence had been circulating for more than a week.

Though Aweys has been condemned by the U.S. for alleged links to terrorists, Ahmed is seen by many as a possible bridge to resolving differences between the transitional government, which is still fighting for legitimacy, and the Islamic courts, which won public respect for restoring security to Mogadishu after years of warlord and clan fighting. Somalia has not had a functioning central government since 1991.

Ahmed's surrender was confirmed by U.S. and other Western officials who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the situation.

U.S. officials are pressuring the transitional government to reach out to moderate Islamist leaders and bring them into the government. Ahmed's cooperation also might help short-circuit a growing Islamist insurgency that is launching attacks inside Mogadishu.

"We have indicated, for example, that someone like Sheik Sharif, if he wanted to play a positive role, that should be a possibility," said U.S. Ambassador to Kenya Michael E. Ranneberger at a news conference last week. "He's a recognized moderate and a respected figure."

A U.S. commitment to provide $40 million in assistance to Somalia this year will be partly contingent upon the government's ability to bring stability and oversee reconciliation, Ranneberger said.

On Monday, European Union officials linked funding for a deployment of African Union peacekeepers to the government's efforts to reach out to Islamists.

U.S. officials said they were not involved in Ahmed's surrender and had not yet interviewed him, though Americans are eager to debrief him regarding the whereabouts of three high-value Al Qaeda suspects wanted in terrorist attacks in Kenya and Tanzania. U.S. officials believe Al Qaeda operatives had infiltrated the Islamic courts.

Somalian officials so far have not demonstrated a strong willingness to reach out to former Islamist leaders or those who previously opposed the transitional government. This month, the president and prime minister helped push out Somalia's outspoken parliament speaker, who had attempted to negotiate independently with the Islamic courts last fall.

EU officials on Monday called for the speaker's reinstatement.

A spokesman for the Somalian government declined to comment on Ahmed's detention, but criticized the EU statement.

"The EU has to recognize Somalia as a sovereign state," said government spokesman Abdirahman Dinari. "They want to dictate to us and interfere with what the parliament has already approved. The speaker was voted out and they must respect the decision."

Though the government has offered amnesty to Islamist fighters who lay down their weapons, top officials said the leaders would be prosecuted.

One Islamist fighter in Mogadishu said it did not matter to him that Ahmed might cooperate with the government.

"Sheik Sharif was not very religious," said Mohamud Salad Nur, who said he was a member of the hard-line Shabab faction within the Islamic courts. "I guess that's what they mean by 'moderate.' We are not going to listen to him if he tells us to stop the guerrilla war."

One Western diplomat said it remained to be seen whether Ahmed would cooperate. In addition to avoiding potential prosecution, Ahmed could win a plum role in the government.

"He has an opportunity to demonstrate that he's a moderate and wants to play a positive role," the official said. "He needs to make clear what his intentions are."

*

edmund.sanders@latimes.com

Times special correspondent Abukar Albadri in Mogadishu contributed to this report.

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