NAIROBI, Kenya—Leaders of Somalia's interim government and the Islamist militias that have seized the capital, Mogadishu, plan to meet for the first time Thursday as diplomats try to avert a war over control of the country.
The peace talks scheduled in Sudan and organized by the Arab League come amid international concern over the political goals of the Union of Islamic Courts, a coalition that drove U.S.-backed warlords out of power earlier this month and raised fears that they would establish an outpost of extremist Islam in the strategic Horn of Africa.
The Islamists and the interim government are sharply divided over the government's support for an African peacekeeping force in Somalia, a totally shattered country that hasn't had an effective central government since 1991.
The Islamists say foreign intervention isn't needed because they have brought stability to the war-torn capital. But the weak interim government, based 150 miles outside Mogadishu, has said it can't rule without security from peacekeeping troops.
The heavily armed Islamists now control Mogadishu and several surrounding towns and are seen as a threat to the internationally backed government, which was formed by a United Nations-led conference in 2004.
On Wednesday, the U.S. State Department's top envoy for Africa said that the Islamists needed to convince the international community that they won't advance on the government's base in the town of Baidoa.
"They need to stop in their tracks where they are right now," Jendayi Frazer, assistant U.S. secretary of state for African affairs, said at a briefing in neighboring Kenya. "Their movement out makes all of us question their intentions, their motives, and it also threatens the neighborhood."
Frazer met Wednesday in Kenya with top officials from the interim government before they flew to Sudan for the negotiations. She reiterated U.S. support for the government and skepticism of the Islamist coalition, which includes radical elements that U.S. officials fear could be hiding suspects in a series of terrorist attacks in East Africa in recent years.
According to widely published reports, the CIA had been secretly paying warlords to help hunt down suspected terrorists. Their swift defeat this month by the Islamists represented a setback for U.S. counterterrorism efforts in the region.
But Frazer said the Islamists' rise to power didn't change U.S. policy on Somalia, which is chiefly to keep the country from becoming a terrorist haven.
Frazer said U.S. officials had no plans to meet with the Islamists but expressed hope that their moderate leader, Sheik Sherif Ahmed, would honor an earlier pledge not to threaten the interim government.
But those conciliatory tones vanished over the weekend, when Islamist leaders reacted angrily to unconfirmed reports that troops from neighboring Ethiopia, the interim government's staunchest ally, had crossed over the border near Baidoa. Frazer said Wednesday that Ethiopian officials have denied those reports to the U.S. charge d'affaires in the country.
Given the climate of mutual mistrust, Frazer said, "we think it's a very positive step that there's a dialogue taking place."
But Frazer said the U.S. wouldn't take a position yet on whether an African peacekeeping force should be deployed. Such a force, which is likely to come from Uganda and Sudan, would require the lifting of an arms embargo that the United States has said is important for security in the country, which is awash in weapons.
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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