UNITED NATIONS -- The U.N. Security Council authorized yesterday a regional force to protect Somalia's faltering interim government against Islamic militants, despite warnings that such intervention could spark a regional conflict.
The measure, passed unanimously, lifts a 1992 weapons embargo to allow the African force to arm itself. It urges Islamic militants to join talks with the transitional government and threatens unspecified penalties against those blocking peace efforts or trying to overthrow the government.
Since June, the militants have taken control of the capital, Mogadishu, and most of southern Somalia, and they have begun to impose rigid Islamic law on areas under their rule.
An Islamic court official announced yesterday that residents of a southern Somalia town, Bulo Burti, who do not pray five times a day will be beheaded.
Last week, the International Crisis Group think tank warned that a regional force would be likely backfire and trigger a regional war instead of preventing it by escalating a proxy conflict between Ethiopia, which supports the interim government, and Eritrea, which supports the Islamists.
"The Islamists ... would likely perceive the resolution as tantamount to a declaration of war," the think tank said.
The United States and Ethiopia claim that the militants, known as the Council of Islamic Courts, have links to al-Qaida.
John R. Bolton, the U.S. ambassador to the United nations, said the Security Council agreed that intervening was the only means of preventing further conflict.
"The whole point of the deployment of the ... peacekeeping force is as a preventive measure so that the situation doesn't deteriorate any further," he said before the vote yesterday. "If we don't take any steps at all, that is the far more likely outcome."
Idd Beddel Mohamed, Somalia's deputy U.N. ambassador, told the council that his government would talk with the Islamists if they halted their military advances and helped ensure that Somalia "shall not become a haven for international terrorism."
Neighboring Ethiopia, which is largely Christian, fears the spread of Islamic fundamentalism and has sent as many as 8,000 troops to Somalia to protect the tottering government, according to a recent internal U.N. report. Eritrea responded by sending about 2,000 fighters into Somalia to back the Islamists.
The resolution authorizes a seven-nation regional group, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, and the African Union to establish a protection force in Somalia for six months.