Islamic militia claims Somali capital

U.S. concerned Mogadishu could become base for terrorists

Wednesday, June 7, 2006 Posted:0022 GMT (0822 HKT)

(CNN) -- An Islamic militia said to have ties to al Qaeda claims to have seized control of Somalia's capital after some of the worst fighting since the government collapsed in 1991.

Observers say the group is unlikely to have popular backing to form a new government.

The Islamic Courts Union, which supports the establishment of Islamic law in Somalia, said on Monday it had pushed an alliance of secular warlords out of nearly all of Mogadishu. This move poses a direct challenge to a fledging U.N.-backed government.

The warlords in this nation of about 8 million people are widely thought to be financially backed by the United States.

The last of the alliance warlords withdrew Saturday night, leaving only a small part of northern Mogadishu under their control, Oways Osman, a reporter for Somalia's Shabelle Radio, said.

Osman said the Islamic militia controlled "88 percent, if not 99 percent" of Mogadishu.

Another Shabelle reporter said thousands of the warlords' supporters joined protests Tuesday against the militia in northern Mogadishu, and members of some Somali clans called on the Courts Union to withdraw from territory it had captured during the fighting.

"Now there are fears that new fighting may erupt between the clans in Mogadishu," reporter Mohamed Amin said.

President Bush said Tuesday that he and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had discussed the possibility of a militant Islamic government in Somalia, and they concur that Mogadishu cannot "become a place from which terrorists can plot and plan."

"We will strategize more when I get back to Washington as to how best to respond to the latest incident there in Somalia," Bush told reporters in Laredo, Texas.

When broadcasting their claim on Monday, the Islamic Courts Union promised to "engage the rest of the world in a way that takes into account the interest of our country," the independent U.N. news agency IRIN reported.

Neither U.S. nor U.N. officials could immediately corroborate the claim.

The Islamic Courts Union has accused U.S. operatives of funneling cash to the alliance warlords. Washington has accused the Islamists of being allied with the al Qaeda terrorist network.

In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack was unable to confirm reports that the Islamic militia had taken control of Mogadishu. But he said the U.S. government did not want to see Somalia become "a safe haven for foreign terrorists."

"We do have real concerns about the presence of foreign terrorists in Somalia, and that informs an important aspect of our policy with regard to Somalia," McCormack said.

In a statement issued Monday, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan urged all sides "to stop the fighting and enter into negotiations."

The African Union has urged the Bush administration to do more to help establish a government in war-ravaged Somalia.

The AU chief Denis Sassou Nguesso on Monday asked the United States to find ways to end the crisis, adding that Washington must not provide aid to warlords, according to Reuters news reports.

The United States has had no direct involvement in Somalia since 1994, when U.S. troops deployed on a humanitarian mission were withdrawn after becoming embroiled in the country's civil war.

But a U.S.-led task force based in neighboring Djibouti has been assigned to keep tabs on the region in a joint mission with European and other African countries, fearing al Qaeda operatives could find shelter in Somalia's chaos.

U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator Jan Egeland said Friday that indiscriminate shelling in Mogadishu and surrounding towns "have resulted in enormous human suffering," and Dennis McNamara, the U.N. special adviser on displacement, said last week that about 400,000 people have been left homeless around the country.

Somalia has been largely lawless since 1991, when the government of longtime strongman Mohammed Siad Barre collapsed.

A transitional government established in 2004 wields little influence, and a month of heavy fighting in Mogadishu killed more than 140 people in May -- most of them civilians, including many children.