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Former Insurgents Take Control of Mogadishu Checkpoints

Troops from the Islamic Courts Union, a former insurgent group that now backs Somalia's new president, have taken over control of checkpoints in the capital Mogadishu from government soldiers. The development comes as Ethiopian troops, who patrolled the city for much of the past two years and began withdrawing from the country earlier this year, were reported crossing the border into Somalia again.

With much of southern and central Somalia under the control of hard-line Islamist insurgents opposed to the government, the immediate task for the country's new moderate Islamist president, Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, is to re-establish security in the capital, Mogadishu.

On Thursday, the government took one step toward this goal, replacing the government forces manning checkpoints in the city, who had had been accused of attacking and stealing from civilians - with fighters belonging to the Islamic Courts Union, an insurgent group that has thrown its backing to President Sharif, a former insurgent leader.

A spokesman for the Islamic Courts Union, Isse Adow, said the group's soldiers had taken over early in the day.

He said the president, earlier in the month, had established a committee to look into security issues, which found that government forces at security checkpoints often held people up, seeking to extract money. The committee recommended removing the government forces from the checkpoints.

Security remains an immense challenge in the capital. On Wednesday, an explosion in the city killed at least two people.

But the challenge of exerting government control over the rest of the country is even greater. The new prime minister, Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke, repeated the government's appeals for negotiations with the radical insurgent group al-Shabab, which controls much of the country's central and southern regions.

There are some hopes that President Sharif can bring on board or marginalize the more radical Shabab. Both split from the same Islamist movement that briefly took control of the country in 2006.

A group of Islamic clerics who had been meeting in the capital issued a series of pronouncements Thursday, including that Muslims should not kill one another, and that Islamists opposed to the government should not use violence. But while other Islamist factions have entered discussions with the government, the Shabab has vowed to continue fighting.

The clerics also called for armed factions to stop targeting aid groups operating in the country; for foreign soldiers - most likely a reference to African Union peacekeepers - to leave the country by the beginning of July; and for a form of Islamic law to be established.

Meanwhile, Somali media has reported that Ethiopian troops have crossed the border into southern Somalia, along with dozens of vehicles. Since withdrawing from the country earlier this year, Ethiopian troops have remained deployed along the border, and Ethiopia's prime minister has indicated that soldiers could return if the threat of insecurity increases. But Ethiopia has denied any renewed incursions.