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Interim leader rejects U.S. approach in Somalia

NAIROBI, Kenya—In a rebuff to the United States, Somalia's interim president, Abdullahi Yusuf, on Monday rejected U.S. requests to bring moderate Islamists into his weak transitional government.

Negotiations with Islamists "will not happen," he told Al Jazeera television before flying to Mogadishu, Somalia's lawless seaside capital. "We will crack down on the terrorists in any place around the nation."

Yusuf had indicated the opposite position in meetings in the Kenyan capital over the weekend with assistant U.S. Secretary of State Jendayi Frazer, U.S. officials said.

There was no immediate reaction from U.S. officials, but Yusuf's remarks underscored the difficulties that Western governments face as they try to shore up Somalia's fragile regime after Ethiopian troops ousted Somalia's popular Islamist rulers last month.

Frazer, the top U.S. diplomat for Africa, had said late Sunday in Nairobi that Yusuf's government, which was formed by an international conference in 2004 and has never controlled Mogadishu, needed to bring moderate Islamists into the regime.

"I support reaching out to the . . . Islamic Courts," Frazer said. "We see a role in the future of Somalia for all who renounce violence and extremism."

The message signaled a more conciliatory U.S. stance on the Islamic Courts Movement, which had seized Mogadishu in June from U.S.-backed warlords. Initially U.S. officials based in Kenya had some contact with moderates within the movement, including Sheik Sherif Ahmed, a geography teacher who emerged as their leader.

But Ahmed soon was edged out by hard-liners, led by suspected al Qaida operative Hassan Dahir Aweys, who laid claims to territory in neighboring countries and called for jihad against Ethiopia. Frazer made a series of statements starting in November claiming that al Qaida terrorists had overrun the courts movement.

U.S. officials think that the militants are sheltering three terrorists who masterminded the 1998 attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The Bush administration is widely thought to have given neighboring, Christian-led Ethiopia the green light to expel the Islamists.

The whereabouts of Aweys and other top Islamist leaders remained uncertain Monday as Ethiopian and Kenyan troops continued to pursue remnants of the fleeing Islamist militias in a heavily wooded area of southern Somalia, near the border with Kenya.

CBS News reported late Monday that a U.S. Air Force gunship launched an airstrike against suspected al Qaida members in the southern tip. The news organization said a lot of bodies were seen on the ground after the strike, but it's unknown whether the operation was successful.

Analysts who'd been critical of U.S. policy in Somalia said the Bush administration might be focusing on achieving political stability there after years of being preoccupied with preventing al Qaida cells from taking root.

"If the U.S. is indeed doing more than making a few public statements in support of dialogue with moderates, then it does represent a shift in the public face of its policy," said John Prendergast, senior adviser to the International Crisis Group, a research center on global conflict.

The Islamists' ouster left a power vacuum in Mogadishu, where the transitional government has little support. The city's powerful Hawiye clan accuses Yusuf, who's of a rival clan, of being a puppet of Ethiopia.

"If southern Somalia is to stabilize, it is essential that the transitional government hold substantial power-sharing talks with the Hawiye clan elders and Islamic Courts officials," Prendergast said.

Trying to sweeten the deal, the U.S. has pledged $40 million in new aid to Somalia, including $14 million to support a proposed African peacekeeping mission. Frazer said the money wasn't conditional on the transitional government negotiating with the Islamists.

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

GRAPHICS (from MCT Graphics, 202-383-6064): SOMALIA

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