Sat, Aug 12, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Somali troops: we'll fight militants

AP , MOGADISHU

Troops in Somalia's semiautonomous Puntland region said on Thursday they were ready to fight Islamic militants who are trying to spread their influence to the central part of the country after taking control of much of the south.

"We hear that the militiamen want to expand their authority throughout Somalia, but we will never accept such expansion," Puntland General Yusuf Ahmed Kheyr said in a radio broadcast.

Puntland declared its autonomy in 1998 as much of this Horn of Africa nation was descending into chaos. The region has its own justice system and has been relatively peaceful.

"Puntland is calm and has formed all necessary regional administrations," Kheyr said.

Earlier this week, hundreds of people in the Puntland town of Galkayo demonstrated against Islamic militiamen, who are expected to arrive there in the coming days to set up an Islamic court. Galkayo is 570km northwest of the capital, Mogadishu, which the Islamic group has held since June.

Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, the leader of the Islamic group, has been in central Somalia in a bid to increase the territory the Islamists hold.

Somalia has not had an effective central government since warlords toppled longtime dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991 and then turned on each other, plunging the country into anarchy.

The Islamic militants have stepped into the power vacuum in recent months and imposed strict religious courts, raising fears of an emerging Taliban-style regime. The US accuses the group of harboring al-Qaeda leaders responsible for deadly bombings at the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.

Somalia's official government is virtually powerless and is based in Baidoa, 255km outside the capital. The Islamic group -- known as the Supreme Islamic Courts Council -- has further marginalized the fragile administration, which was formed two years ago to help stabilize the country.

The Arab League has been trying to mediate peace talks between the Islamic militia and government officials, to little avail. The militants have rebuffed an attempt to have the talks on Tuesday in Khartoum, Sudan, and want to have the talks next month instead, according to an Arab League official.

Previous talks have not brought any lasting agreements.

Also Thursday, the Islamic group arrested two men who were running for local office in the capital of Mogadishu. The men were seeking positions on the Mogadishu Local Council, which was formed by the warlords who ruled the capital before the militants took over in June.

"The council is a remnant of the warlords so they can't have a say in the running of the capital," said Sheik Utaiba, who ordered the arrests. His council later issued a statement on the arrests that reiterated that it would brook no challenge to its authority.

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