A senior U.S. diplomat says Somalia must not further become a safe haven for terrorists. The president of Somalia's interim government alleges that radicals inside the Islamic courts movement that controls much of the country are becoming increasingly powerful.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer says that Somali interim President Abdullahi Yusuf is expressing what she termed "valid concerns" about the radical wing of the Islamic courts trying to establish a permanent sanctuary for Muslim terrorists in Somalia.
"We have said over and over again that the people responsible for bombing our embassies in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam, and we have evidence, are in Mogadishu," Frazer said. "That constitutes a safe haven. We do not want it to become a further safe haven. Certainly, when you see President Yusuf, and he had been wounded in the attack against parliament, you can understand his call for international assistance."
Yusuf narrowly escaped a suicide car bombing last month in the Somali town of Baidoa, where his U.N.-recognized interim government is based. The Islamic courts control the capital, Mogadishu, and much of southern Somalia.
Yusuf initially blamed al-Qaida for carrying out the attack. But, on Thursday, he said his security forces had uncovered evidence that linked Islamist leader Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys in a plot to kill him and 16 other politicians in the transitional government.
Yusuf also said that the radical wing of the Islamist movement had invited foreign fighters from Arab countries, Europe, Afghanistan and Chechnya to join its militia.
The Islamist leader, Sheikh Aweys, once led a militant Somali group with alleged ties to al-Qaida and is already on a U.S. list of terror suspects. Aweys has repeatedly denied any ties to terrorism.
Yusuf outlined his allegations against the Islamic courts in Nairobi during a meeting of Western and African diplomats, which included the U.S. assistant secretary, representatives from the European Union, the African Union, the Arab League, and the regional east African Inter-Governmental Authority on Development, known as IGAD.
The day-long meeting of the International Contact Group was aimed at trying to convince the internationally backed government in Baidoa and the Islamists to participate in a third round of peace talks in Khartoum, Sudan, scheduled in 10 days time.
The first two rounds of talks secured an interim truce and a mutual recognition agreement. But tensions have soared in recent weeks, after Islamists seized the key southern Somali port of Kismayo, putting the third round of talks in jeopardy.
Assistant Secretary Frazer says the Contact Group considers the seizure of Kismayo a breach of the interim peace pact. She says the United States understands the concern of the transitional government and its chief ally in the region, Ethiopia, which fears the establishment of a fundamentalist theocracy in Somalia, and has vowed to defend itself against what it calls Islamist aggression.
On Thursday, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi told parliament in Addis Ababa that Islamist troops were within 15 kilometers of the Ethiopian border.
Frazier expressed U.S. concern over the Islamists' military advances.
"Ethiopia has legitimate concerns about their security, and it has communicated those to the courts," she added. "And we think that is the appropriate way to go about addressing those concerns. The courts, on the other hand, have continued to advance militarily, which then leads to greater concern and fears. We have always said that expansion could pull in Ethiopia. That is a concern of ours. The path that we are looking is, how can you prevent the continued expansion, which is in contradiction to the agreement in Khartoum?"
Frazer says that does not mean Ethiopia - nor Ethiopia's other rival in the Horn, Eritrea - should interfere in Somalia.
She says the United States has evidence that Eritrea is exacerbating regional tensions by shipping arms to Islamists, possibly in a bid to spite Ethiopia, with which it fought a bitter border war and remains on hostile terms.
"Eritrea has said that it is against extremist governments, and it always has been," she said. "So, it is against its natural interest to be shipping arms to the courts, which have the Shaabab and others, which are of an extremist orientation."
The assistant secretary also called Ethiopian threats of a military intervention in Somalia "unfortunate."
Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles recently acknowledged that he has sent military advisors to Baidoa to help train interim government forces. But he denies Islamist accusations and eyewitness reports, which suggest that a large number of Ethiopian troops are present in Somalia.