updated 6/19/2006 6:17:09 PM ET 2006-06-19T22:17:09

A U.N. security team will head to Somalia this week to meet with leaders of an Islamic militant group that has captured much of the country, the first formal contact between the United Nations and the militants, a senior official said Monday.

The trip is meant to prepare for a similar visit by U.N. humanitarian agencies that want to ramp up aid to the country, said Francois Lonseny Fall, the U.N. special representative for Somalia.

It also reflects a growing realization within the U.N. that the Islamic militants — known as the Islamic Courts Union — are the closest thing Somalia now has to a government after some 15 years as a failed state when different warlords rose and fell, officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the subject.

“It’s ’turning the page’ time,” one U.N. official said. “There’s something functioning like a government there for the first time in a very long time.”

Build bonds
The team will meet the group’s representatives in Jowhar, a city 60 miles northeast of the capital Mogadishu. The militants captured Jowhar from secular warlords on Wednesday.

Several United Nations agencies had a compound in Jowhar that had to be evacuated as the fighting intensified.

Fall said the meeting will help the United Nations better understand the Islamic Courts Union, which is little-known and poorly understood outside Somalia. The United States fears the union is harboring terrorists, but the group has said it wants to play a constructive role with the international community.

“We don’t know exactly what is their intention and that’s why the first mission is going now to Jowhar to meet them,” Fall said.

Aid groups to join security team
U.N. officials said the humanitarian agencies joining the second trip would likely include the U.N. Development Program, the World Food Program, the U.N. Children’s Fund, known as UNICEF, and the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, among others.

The World Food Program says 23 percent of Somalis suffer from malnutrition, well above the 15 percent rate that means a country is in a major emergency.

Somalia has been without an effective central government since the fall of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991. A transitional government was established in 2004 but wields little power.

It is based in the only town it controls, Baidoa, 155 miles northwest of Mogadishu.

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