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Doubts Arise Over Presence of Foreign Muslim Fighters in Somalia


An alliance of secular factional leaders battling Islamic militias for control of the Somali capital, Mogadishu, says that militant Muslim fighters from various countries have entered Somalia and are fighting alongside the militias. But, so far, there is no clear proof.

Somali factional leader, Muse Sudi Yalahow, tells VOA that he is absolutely certain that foreign Muslim extremists are in Somalia and fighting to turn the country into a base for Islamic terrorists.

Yalahow says the fighters have come mostly from countries in the region such as Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, and Sudan. But he says there are other fighters, who are believed to be from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and some Arab countries.

Yalahow is among 11 Mogadishu-based factional leaders and businessmen, who recently formed a group called the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism. For the past few weeks, members of the anti-terror group have talked publicly about seeing foreign fighters killed in a series of fierce battles this month, which has killed nearly 300 people, many of them civilians.

In the West, such reports have greatly heightened fears that the leaders of the Islamic courts, whose militias are now in control the majority of the neighborhoods in and around the capital, are on the verge of turning Somalia into an active staging ground for al-Qaida and its extremist allies.

Alliance member and factional leader, Mohammed Qanyare Afrah, says that his group has proof of foreign fighter presence in Mogadishu.

"The coalition has a video cassette [that] shows Arabs, Pakistanis, and Afghans fighting," said Qanyare Afrah.

VOA was not able to view the video tape, but was allowed to see a series of still photographs of fighters the alliance says were non-Somalis.

One photograph showed a light-skinned man, whose face was partially covered with a checkered scarf, making it impossible to guess his ethnic make-up. A much darker-skinned man, whose face was uncovered, was described as being a militant fighter from Sudan.

Mahad Elmi is a broadcaster for the local radio station, Horn Afrique. He says even suspected foreign fighters who were killed have never been positively identified as being non-Somalis.

"We, as journalists, have tried to even get bodies of fighters," said Mahad Elmi. "We go even to hospitals to find out, are they Somalis? Are they Pakistanis? Are they Oromo or are they Sudanese? We do not have any evidence."

In an interview with VOA, the chairman of the Islamic law courts in Mogadishu, Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, accused the anti-terror group of lying to western countries, and to the United States in particular, about the courts' members and their activities.

Ahmed says talk of foreign fighters is pure propaganda. He says the whole thing is an attempt by factional leaders in the so-called anti-terror alliance to persuade the United States to give them more money.

Ahmed is referring to the widely-held belief here that the United States is paying the alliance large sums of cash to help track down and apprehend al-Qaida operatives in Somalia.

Alliance members flatly deny they are receiving funding from Washington. Mohammed Qanyare Afrah says his group is fighting terrorism on principle, not for pay.

"We are not working for anybody," said Mohammed Qanyare Afrah. "The U.S. is not involved in the war in Mogadishu."

But militias belonging to alliance members have been seen in recent weeks, brandishing brand new AK-47 assault rifles. They also appear to have new stockpiles of ammunition, convincing many ordinary Somalis that the United States is using secular factional militias to fight a proxy war against the Islamic courts.

U.S. officials have not said whether the United States has a specific relationship with the alliance.

But officials have voiced concern that the Islamic courts could be harboring al-Qaida members and sympathizers and the country may be attracting a large number of Muslim extremists.

The Islamic law courts began establishing themselves across Somalia more than a decade ago as clan-based institutions. They were designed to bring order and security to a country that had descended into anarchy and factional warfare after the fall of Somali dictator Mohammed Siad Barre in 1991.

Numerous efforts to unify the courts failed and since last year, the court in Mogadishu has largely dominated the others.

The United States fears Islamic court leaders are committed to setting up a fundamentalist Islamic government in Somalia, similar to what the Taliban established in Afghanistan before the group was deposed in 2001.

Islamic leaders in Mogadishu portray their courts as the only option Somalia has for getting rid of the country's hated factional leaders once and for all and bringing peace to the country under Islamic rule.

But many moderate Muslims in the capital say they question the Islamic courts' true intentions.

The supreme spiritual leader of the Islamic courts, Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, is believed to be sympathetic to al-Qaida and has allegedly set up a number of schools in Mogadishu, where boys and young men are being given training in using weapons and explosives.

The anti-terror alliance also accuses the sheikh of receiving money and arms from al-Qaida and other terrorist groups.

Sheikh Hassan's nephew, Aden Hashi Ayro, is a well-known militia leader, who is said to have received terrorist training in Afghanistan and is suspected of being behind a string of bombings and assassinations in the past year.

The alliance suffered major setbacks in recent days, losing key territories to Islamic militias. But alliance leaders say they will not surrender.

With both warring sides in Mogadishu allegedly receiving money to fight each other, Somalis say the fighting could continue indefinitely. And they say if there are no foreign fighters in their country now, there is no guarantee that they will not be here tomorrow.

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