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Somali Parliament Leader Meets With Islamist Leaders

Somalia's parliament speaker has met with leaders of the country's powerful Islamist movement in an effort to avoid war.

Islamist leaders Sunday welcomed Sharif Hassan Sheik Aden and at least 19 other Somali legislators in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, which the Islamists control.

Aden has said he made the trip without the authorization of the president or prime minister in Somalia's interim government. Saturday, government ministers requested that Aden consult with them before meeting with the Islamists.

Peace talks between the interim government and the Islamists collapsed in Sudan on Wednesday.

Witnesses say the two sides are preparing for battle around the government's home base of Baidoa. The town in southern Somalia is the only one the weak administration controls.

Locals say both sides have deployed additional fighters to the area, and have test-fired their artillery, causing some civilians to flee.

Militia groups loyal to the Islamic courts have seized control over much of southern Somalia since winning a battle for Mogadishu in June. Somalia's interim government has international support but virtually no power outside Baidoa.

Diplomats fear that war between the sides could drag in neighboring Ethiopia, which supports the government, and Eritrea, which allegedly backs the Islamists.

Ethiopia says it has a few hundred military instructors in Somalia, though witness reports put the troop numbers much higher, in the thousands. Eritrea has denied accusations from the United States that it is helping to arm the Islamist forces.

Somalia has not had effective central authority since 1991, when warlords overthrew the last president.