MOGADISHU, Somalia – Members of an Islamic militia that controls most of southern Somalia battled for a clan-held checkpoint early Tuesday, killing five people before declaring victory, witnesses said.
The checkpoint connecting the capital, Mogadishu, to the Lower Shabelle region was manned by members of the Habar Gidir clan, who charged motorists a fee to pass. Three of the victims were civilians, said clan leader Abdi Kaibdid.
The Islamic militia seized control of the capital and much of southern Somalia from an alliance of secular warlords earlier this month. Washington, which accuses the militia of harboring Al Qaeda leaders responsible for deadly 1998 bombings at the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, supported the warlords in an attempt to root out terrorists.
On Monday, the radical cleric who is the militia's new leader, Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, said he envisions an Islamic state, a stand likely to reinforce U.S. fears the nation could become a haven for extremists. Aweys was on the U.S. terrorist watch list as a suspected collaborator with Al Qaeda.
Underlining the apparent tougher line, militia leaders said Monday that they will publicly stone to death four suspected rapists if they are convicted in Jowhar, 55 miles from Mogadishu.
"Somalia is a Muslim nation and its people are also Muslim, 100 percent. Therefore any government we agree on would be based on the holy Koran and the teachings of our Prophet Muhammad," Aweys told The Associated Press in a telephone interview, his first comments to the media since being named head of the Islamic militia Saturday.
Aweys' stance could put Somalia on a collision course with the United States and the United Nations. The previous militia leader, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, had been reaching out to the West and Somalia's largely powerless U.N.-backed interim government.
Aweys, 71, condemned Western-style democracy and said he was under no obligation to abide by the wishes of the West.
"It is not compulsory for us to hate what the Westerners hate," said the former military colonel, who spoke from his home in central Somalia.
"Our relationship with the U.S. administration will depend on how the U.S. treats us," he added. "If it treats us well, we will also treat them well. If it behaves badly, it will be responsible."
The U.S. government said it had no plans to engage with Aweys but adding it was not ready to conclude he wants to turn Somalia into a terrorist state.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said t he United States would wait to see if the militia shows a commitment to fight terrorism, makes an effort to meet the humanitarian needs of the Somali people and works with the interim government.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington, the United States put Aweys on a terrorist watch list because he and an Islamic group he founded — al-Itihaad — were believed to have had links to Usama bin Laden while bin Laden was living in Sudan in the early 1990s. U.S. officials have not elaborated on the alleged links.
Aweys went into hiding after the Sept. 11 attacks and didn't re-emerge until August 2005, when he helped found the Islamic militia, now known as the Somali Supreme Islamic Courts Council. He told the AP previously that al-Itihaad no longer existed and that he had no ties to Al Qaeda.