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Reports Say Top Islamic Leader In Somalia Has Turned Himself In

One of the top leaders of the Somali Islamist movement is reportedly in U.S. and Kenyan custody in Nairobi, three weeks after Somali government and Ethiopian troops ousted the Islamic Courts Union from power. VOA Correspondent Alisha Ryu in our East Africa Bureau in Nairobi has details.

The U.S. Embassy here declined to confirm media reports that Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed is under American protection in a Nairobi hotel.

But the reports say the Somali Islamist leader, who was the chairman of the Executive Council of the once-powerful Islamic Courts Union, was flown to Nairobi after he arrived in Kenya in recent days.

Since the Islamist leadership abandoned Mogadishu late last month, Somali government and Ethiopian troops, backed up by the U.S. military, have been hunting for radical leaders and their al-Qaida allies in an Islamist stronghold in the southern-most tip of the country.

It is not clear where Ahmed was when he made his decision to come to Kenya. But the high-level protection he is receiving in Nairobi strongly indicates that U.S. and Kenyan officials view the cleric as a man who could play a vital role in Somalia's post-Islamist reconciliation efforts.

Last week, U.S. Ambassador to Kenya Michael Ranneberger described Ahmed as a moderate leader, with whom the two-year-old interim government could and should open a dialogue.

He said, "He is a recognized moderate and a respected figure, and there may be other moderates, who were associated with the Islamic Courts who could play a significant role in the future of the country."

Somalia's secular government, which frequently described the Islamic Courts Union as being led by terrorists, has reacted coolly to U.S. and European Union calls to hold peace talks with all segments of Somali society, including Islamists, to promote national reconciliation.

President Abdullahi Yusuf and Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi have held peace talks with Somali clan elders and factional leaders. But so far, religious leaders have not been included in the talks.

Meanwhile, government leaders, who are trying to consolidate power with the aid of Ethiopia's military, are grappling with escalating violence in the capital.

The revival of traditional clan rivalries and resentment of Somalis over the presence of Ethiopian troops have prompted fears that the country could rapidly destabilize.

The U.N. Security Council and the African Union have approved an eight-thousand member African peacekeeping force to replace the Ethiopian troops. The United States, which does not want Somalia to be a lawless haven for Muslim extremists, has offered $16 million to help cover the cost of the peacekeeping mission.

But if the violence continues, analysts say few countries are likely to contribute troops.