updated 10/17/2005 7:34:39 PM ET 2005-10-17T23:34:39

A Somali suspected of being a militia leader during the 1993 battle that left 18 Americans dead was arrested Monday on suspicion of war crimes while attending a conference in Sweden, police and organizers said.

A man identified as Abdi Hassan Awale, who once served as Somalia’s interior minister, was taken into custody after Somalis living in Sweden recognized him and reported him to police, said Gillian Nilsson, an organizer of the conference on development in the Horn of Africa.

Awale, also known as Abdi Qeybdiid, was a commander in warlord Farah Aidid’s militia when it fought a 19-hour battle against American troops in Mogadishu on Oct. 3, 1993. Two U.S. helicopters were shot down and hundreds of Somalis died, in addition to the American soldiers. The story was featured in the book and movie “Black Hawk Down.”

Police spokesman Karl Sandberg would not confirm the suspect’s identity but said the 57-year-old Somali man was arrested on suspicion of war crimes early Monday at a hotel in Lund and taken to Goteborg for questioning.

The suspect’s lawyer, Pieter Kjessler, told Swedish public radio that he denied the allegations against him during questioning on Monday.

Somalia was thrown into civil war and anarchy after clan-based warlords overthrew dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991. More than 500,000 people have been killed and some 3.5 million have been driven from their homes, 1.5 million of whom have taken refuge in neighboring countries.

Awale, who was a colonel in Somalia’s former army, was named interior minister in the internationally unrecognized government that was declared in the capital after Barre’s ouster.

News of Awale’s capture was welcomed by Somalis living in the United States.

“We were joyous to hear this,” said Omar Jamal, executive director of the Somali Justice Advocacy center in St. Paul, Minn. “It sends a loud and clear message to all the other Somali war criminals.”

Jamal said Awale was involved in the 1993 militia fighting with American troops.

Nilsson said Awale was part of a six-member Somali delegation headed by parliamentary speaker Sharif Hassan Sheikh Aden that attended the development conference in Sweden.

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