NAIROBI, Kenya -- Answering U.S. fears that Somalia could become an al-Qaida stronghold, the leader of an Islamic movement that recently took control of the capital said the United Nations should send an investigative team to ensure that no terrorists could pass through his country or hide there.
Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed appealed to the new, U.S.-organized contact group on Somalia, which was meeting for the first time yesterday in New York, to help disarm militias and stabilize the country.
Last week, militias of the Islamic Courts Union drove out a group of warlords who had controlled the capital, Mogadishu, for 15 years.
Sharif said in a letter to the contact group dated June 14 and released yesterday that Somalis had been subjected to terrorism for years and steadfastly oppose it.
U.S. officials have expressed concern that Islamic leaders in Mogadishu are sheltering three al-Qaida suspects believed to be responsible for the bombings of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 and the bombing of a hotel in Mombasa in 2002.
"Some of our leaders' families had the unfortunate experiences of loved ones being kidnapped, tortured and murdered at the hands of warlords and criminal groups during the last decade. We feel the pain of all people who had to face the tyranny of terrorists and organized criminals," Sharif said in the letter. "Our commitment in this regard is steadfast." He invited a U.N. team to come to Somalia to monitor the situation.
Somalia's infrastructure has been shattered by clan warfare after the ousting of dictator Siad Barre in 1991. With no central government, police or national army, the country disintegrated into a collection of fiefdoms.
The ICU, a fragmented, clan-based alliance, has emerged as the key political force in the capital and is extending its control to the south and north of Mogadishu.
The government has international support but no control of the country, and only a small security force. It lacks the power to make a move to the capital.
The U.S.-organized contact group on Somalia has been criticized in Africa for leaving out key players who have been working for more than two years on the most recent attempt to restore a central government. The contact group involves only one African country, Tanzania, along with Britain, Italy, Norway, Sweden, and the European Union. The United Nations and the African Union have been invited to participate as observers.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan criticized the United States for reportedly supporting Somali warlords who pledged to round up suspected terrorists. He welcomed the chance for stability in Somalia, but said it was unclear whether the Islamic Courts Union could restore order while respecting human rights.
"I have heard the reports that it's al-Qaida and it's going to be a rerun," Annan said. "I have no evidence to support that. But what I can say is that the people have been fed up with the warlords and probably had helped the other side defeat the warlords, just to get their liberty back."
A statement issued by the contact group after its meeting affirmed support for the transitional government and urged dialogue with the Islamic Court Union.
Sharif's letter spelled out plans to reach a peace accord that would enable the transitional government, formally known as the Transitional Federal Government, to move to Mogadishu "as soon as possible." Sharif said the ICU would set up a committee to negotiate peace with the transitional government.
"Our intention is that a comprehensive agreement will be worked out such that the TFG will move to the capital city as soon as possible," the letter said.
Robyn Dixon writes for the Los Angeles Times.