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Kenya's Muslim Leaders Deny Somali Islamists Recruitment

As fear mounts of an all-out war in Somalia which could drag in neighboring countries, Muslim leaders in Kenya are denying allegations that Somali Islamists are actively recruiting young ethnically-Somali Kenyans in the northeastern part of the country into their movement. VOA Correspondent Alisha Ryu reports from our East Africa Bureau in Nairobi.

Allegations of recruitment by Somali Islamists in Kenya's Northeastern Province first surfaced about a month ago, when the provincial commissioner, Kiritu Wamae, revealed that he had a list of local youths, who had been recruited for what he called a "holy war" in Somalia to unite all ethnic Somalis in the region under Islamic law.

Wamae said that the Kenyan government was aware of the recruitment activity taking place in Garissa, near the Somali border.

On Wednesday, a top-ranking Kenyan Muslim leader al-Haj Yusuf Murigu alleged that the Kenyan government is helping its ally in the war on terror, the United States, to discredit Somalia's Islamist movement.

"Somebody brought propaganda, emanating from America, that they [Islamists] are recruiting young people to fight, but that is not true," he said. "These are rumors, just hype so that people can fight. Our young people, they are too busy looking for their food, hand-to-mouth. They have no time for war."

Since the Islamists in Somalia took power in the capital Mogadishu in June, Kenya, along with neighbors Ethiopia and Uganda, have expressed growing concern about the Islamists' rapid expansion into much of southern and central Somalia.

Somali Islamist leaders, some of whom are accused of having deep ties to terrorist groups like al-Qaida, have installed strict clerical rule in the areas they control and have sidelined the country's U.N.-backed-but-virtually-powerless interim government, based in the town of Baidoa.

The interim government's chief sponsor, Ethiopia, is believed to have sent thousands of troops into Somalia to halt the Islamists' expansion.

Ethiopia's rival in the region, Eritrea, is believed to have also sent its troops to back the Islamist movement, raising fears that a bloody proxy war could erupt in Somalia.

Last week, Muslim leaders here warned the Kenyan government against allowing foreign militaries to use the country as a staging ground for war against the Islamists. The warning came after Ethiopian tanks allegedly moved through Kenya's Northeastern Province.

Al-Haj Yusuf Murigu says residents there are now seeing movements of American troops and military vehicles - a situation, which he says is creating fear and suspicion.

"We are quite unhappy. We know that America has a bone to pick with Somalia but for us, it is not good, and we want to tell them and our government that we would like them to stop using our country," he said.

A Kenyan Defense Department spokesman, Bogita Ongeri, says U.S. troops in Garissa are only engaged in improving local infrastructure and facilities, continuing the work they have been doing in Kenya and elsewhere in the region for the past several years.

"We have some Americans working jointly with our Kenyan military engineers, providing civil aid, drilling bore holes. They are our partners in development," he said.

Last Friday, the United States introduced a U.N. resolution to ease a 1992 weapons embargo on Somalia, which would allow the deployment of armed regional peacekeepers. The Islamists say they will summon foreign fighters throughout the Muslim world to fight the troops, if they are sent to Somalia.