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Islamist opposition figure warns U.N. officials

Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys claims to be Somalia's new opposition leader. He denies any links to terrorism, but is suspected by the U.S. of collaborating with al-Qaida. Osman Hassan / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The man who claims to be Somalia's new opposition leader promised Friday to pacify his shattered country through Islamic law, warning U.N. peacekeepers they will face attack if they deploy and support the government.

Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys, whose Islamic regime was ousted from power in 2006 with tacit support from the United States, is gaining influence again as a deadly insurgency ruptures Somalia. Thousands have been killed in the fighting since 2007.

This week, Aweys claimed to have taken over the Islamist opposition movement, which operates in exile in Eritrea, pushing out a more moderate cleric who signed a peace agreement with Somalia's U.N.-backed government last month.

"Fighting U.N. peacekeepers depends on how they behave in Somalia," Aweys told The Associated Press in an interview that touched on subjects ranging from accusations of terrorism — which he denied — to his four wives and 22 children.

The U.N. Security Council has said it would consider deploying peacekeepers to replace African Union troops if political reconciliation and security improve.

But the badly undermanned African Union force has struggled in its efforts to keep the peace, and Aweys' accession to the leadership of the opposition does not appear to promise further reconciliation.

Grim outlook
An Iraq-style Islamic insurgency, which Aweys promised after he was driven from power with the help of Ethiopian troops, has contributed to a humanitarian emergency, with millions of Somalis dependent on aid. The United States fears Somalia could become a haven for al-Qaida.

Nicole Thompson, a State Department spokeswoman, said the U.S. does not consider Aweys a legitimate representative of the opposition Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia.

"Aweys' self-proclamation of leadership over the ARS does not reflect the sentiment, as we understand it, of other ARS members, nor does it reflect the desire of the Somali people for peace and stability," Thompson said.

Aweys is designated a terrorist under a U.N. Security Council resolution. Aweys and a spokesman for the movement said he was voted into power Tuesday. A communique purported to be from the alliance, dated July 22 and obtained by the AP, announces his leadership.

But Reuters reported that the U.N. special envoy for Somalia, Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, said Aweys had not taken over the opposition.

"He was not elected," Ould-Abdallah said in an interview Friday with a small group of journalists at U.N. headquarters.

"The leadership of the ARS has left Asmara (Eritrea's capital) in May," he said, adding that moderate Sheikh Sharif Ahmed remained the ARS' recognized and legitimate leader.

Ould-Abdallah said Aweys' claim was likely part of an internal media battle between him and others inside the ARS, an umbrella opposition alliance of the lawless Horn of Africa country. He said that the hard-line Islamist did not even have the support of 20 percent of the central committee of the ARS, Reuters reported.

Somalia's interim government and some members of the ARS initialed a deal in Djibouti last month calling for the deployment of U.N. peacekeepers and agreeing to a ceasefire after a month.

'We will fight them'
Speaking by phone from the opposition base in Eritrea, Aweys said his fighters will battle any U.N. force that supports the government or the Ethiopian troops propping up that fragile administration.

"The issue is clear," he said. "If they side with the (government) and with Ethiopians, we will fight them."

The last U.N. peacekeeping force in Somalia included American troops who arrived in 1992 and tried to arrest warlords and create a government. That experiment in nation-building ended in October 1993, when fighters shot down a U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopter during a battle that killed 18 American soldiers.

"We don't want foreigners, definitely," Aweys said. "We know their harm."

Aweys, who sports the henna-stained beard of distinguished Somali men, refused to say how many fighters are backing him, but said he is confident he can end the 17 years of chaos that have followed the ouster of a dictatorship left Somalia without a government.

"I am married to four women and they don't fight," he said. "Don't you think the man who can manage four wives can manage a government?"

After the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S., Washington put Aweys on a terrorist watch list because he and an Islamic group he founded — al-Itihaad — were believed to have had links to Osama bin Laden when bin Laden lived in Sudan in the early 1990s.

"Even if I met him, is it a crime?" Aweys said. But he denied links to terrorism.

"The whole world killed us, kicked us out just on the rumor that we are allied with al-Qaida," he said. "Where is the justice? The world jumped to conclusions."

Aweys went into hiding after the Sept. 11 attack and didn't re-emerge until 2005, when he helped found a radical Islamic militia that became known as the Council of Islamic Courts.

Executions, floggings
The militia brought southern Somalia a semblance of stability, but also terrified people with threats of public executions and floggings. Aweys' group ruled the capital and much of the south for six months in 2006 before troops from neighboring Ethiopia defeated it.

Aweys' group then launched an insurgency that has killed thousands of civilians and shattered a country that already was one of the most violent and impoverished in the world. The Ethiopian troops — resented in Somalia as occupiers — have been accused of abusing their power.

The opposition went into exile in Eritrea, under the leadership of a more moderate cleric, Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed. On Tuesday night, Aweys forced Ahmed out, denouncing a recent peace agreement he signed with the government.

Ahmed and the government agreed to end months of violence, and agreed in principle to the eventual withdrawal of Ethiopian troops, but the deal has had no effect on the ground. Aweys refuses to talk with the government until Ethiopia withdraws its troops.

Ethiopia and the Somali government refused to comment on Aweys' re-emergence or his warnings.

Al-Qaida victims
Somalia sits in the Horn of Africa, an area roughly half the size of the United States that is home to about 165 million people in Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya and Djibouti. Corrupt governments, porous borders and widespread poverty have created a region ripe for Islamic fundamentalism.

Kenya, and Tanzania just to its south, have already been victims of al-Qaida terrorism. The U.S. embassies in those countries were bombed in 1998, and militants attacked a hotel and an Israeli airliner in Kenya in 2002.

The attacks emanated from Somalia.

Somalia has been without a functioning government since 1991, when clan warlords ousted longtime dictator Mohamed Siad Barre and then turned on each other. The current government was formed in 2004 with the help of the United Nations but has failed to protect citizens from violence or the country's breathtaking poverty.

In recent years, the United States backed a secret program to pay Mogadishu's widely detested warlords to help track down those in Somalia with links to terrorism. But the policy backfired when the Islamists united under Aweys and ousted the warlords from the capital.

The United States now supports Somalia's ineffectual transitional government.

Aweys, however, said only Islamic law can help Somalia.

"Somalis are Muslims," he said. "We have asked them and they want Islamic rule."