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US Official Reiterates Concern About Militant Elements in Somalia

The top U.S. official for Africa has renewed Washington's concern about what she calls militant elements within Somalia's Supreme Islamic Council that she says may be providing a haven for terrorists. VOA's Dan Robinson reports on comments by Assistant Secretary of State Jendayi Fraser in testimony Thursday to a congressional committee.

Appearing before a joint hearing of the House Africa, and International Terrorism and Nonproliferation subcommittees, Assistant Secretary Fraser made clear U.S. concern about Somalia becoming a base for terrorists. "It is indeed the case that the Union of Islamic Courts is a heterogeneous group of courts, Islamic courts, and that there are elements in it that are jihadist in nature, militant hardliners, and indeed are providing haven for terrorists within Mogadishu and within Somalia," she said.

The Union of Islamic Courts, now known as the Somali Supreme Islamic Courts Council, announced Thursday that it was claiming authority over the entire country.

The group's overall leader, Sheikh Hassan Dahir Awey, is on a U.S. terrorist watch list as a suspected collaborator with al-Qaida.

Fraser says the U.S. continues to support a return to a central government, and the transitional federal charter, while working with other nations to prevent Somalia from continuing to be a source of regional instability.

However, she refers to what she calls mixed messages emerging from Mogadishu regarding policies on such things as Islamic [sharia] law, and had these suggestions for the Islamic Courts Council:

"What is important really is not to reach out to the U.S. but rather to reach out to the [Somali] Transitional Federal Government as we have encouraged this dialogue, [which] the first meeting took place in Khartoum. But beyond that also to demonstrate with actions. Stop the expansion, stop hostilities. Right now there is fighting taking place, to stop all hostilities and fighting and also to turn over these terrorists that we know are in Mogadishu. So speak with action," she said.

John Prendergast, of the International Crisis Group, has been a sharp critic of U.S. policy regarding Somalia.

He urges a new U.S. effort to engage all elements in the Islamic Courts Union, to avoid the prospect of radicals coming to dominate it:

"It is crucial I think for us to engage with all elements of the Islamic Courts [Council], but particularly the court's executive committee which is headed by Sheikh Sharif. The Islamic Courts have invited an international inquiry into its links with al-Qaida, and whether terrorists are being harbored in Somalia. We need to immediately test the Islamic Courts Union and see if it would provided access to investigators into Somalia to have a look and see whether people are actually being provided that safe haven," he said.

Prendergast says early engagement with the Islamic Courts Union would head off, what he calls, its Talebanization later on.

In her testimony, Assistant Secretary Fraser noted that the next meeting of the International Somalia Contact Group, comprising the U.S., United Nations, African Union, European Union and others, is scheduled for July 7 in Sweden to discuss coordination of next steps.