MOGADISHU, Somalia – Somalia's nearly powerless interim government said Friday it would boycott weekend peace talks with the Islamic militia that has seized control of nearly all the nation's south, accusing the group of civilian massacres and ties to foreign terrorists.
The militia, however, sent negotiators Friday to the talks venue and portrayed the government as an obstacle to peace.
"If the transitional government doesn't come, then the international community will see who wants peace in Somalia and who doesn't," said Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, a leader of the Supreme Islamic Courts Council.
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Transitional President Abdullahi Yusuf told lawmakers that neighboring Eritrea has armed and trained the Islamic militia, and that the militia seized control of large parts of southern Somalia with the help of foreign fighters.
"I personally know that foreign terrorists — most of them from neighboring Ethiopia and including Pakistanis, Turks, Afghans and Arabs from different nations — have been involved in recent fighting in Mogadishu," the capital, Yusuf said. Referring to Ethiopia, he meant ethnic Oromo rebels that Somali officials accuse of helping the Islamic group.
Yusuf said the government will not negotiate with radical militia members. Officials are considering talks with moderate members, civil society organizations and businessmen in Mogadishu. The Cabinet is expected to work out those plans, he said.
The Arab League-sponsored talks, set for Saturday in Khartoum, Sudan, were expected to be a move toward international acceptance for the militia, which Washington accuses of harboring Osama bin Laden's terror network and wanting to impose a Taliban-style theocracy.
Somalia has been a particular concern to the United States, which has long feared the Horn of Africa nation would become a refuge for Al Qaeda, much as Afghanistan did in the late 1990s.
On Friday, Yusuf also accused the Islamic militia of planning to attack Baidoa and the strategic southern port of Kismayo.
"The militia have massacred civilians and government supporters in their latest fighting in Mogadishu," Yusuf said, referring to three days of ferocious combat during which the Islamic militia consolidated its grip on the capital by disarming holdout secular warlords.
The Islamic militia wrested Mogadishu from a U.S.-backed secular alliance of warlords last month, bringing weeks of relative calm to a capital that has seen little more than chaos since the last effective central government was toppled in 1991.
But the Islamic council has grown increasingly hard-line since then, establishing strict courts based on the Koran. The group replaced its moderate leader with Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys, whom the United States has linked to Al Qaeda. Aweys denies the allegation.
The weekend peace talks were planned before Aweys was appointed, and the interim government has said for weeks it does not want to negotiate with him. Government minister Ismail Mohamud Hurreh said Yusuf and the prime minister have asked Sudanese officials to delay the meeting.
The interim government, established with help from the United Nations, has little authority outside Baidoa, 150 miles from Mogadishu. On Thursday, the U.N. Security Council said it is willing to consider easing an arms embargo so the transitional government can develop a security force.
"While the Islamic militants have their own foreign fighters, I think we have a right to have forces from our own foreign friends to help us restore peace and stability," Yusuf told lawmakers.
The Security Council's announcement came after a week of turmoil in Mogadishu. At least 70 people were killed in the recent clashes, which ended Tuesday with the defeat of fighters loyal to a holdout warlord.
Since then, a flow of former rivals have surrendered weapons to the militia, further cementing the radical Muslims' position as the undisputed power in the Somali capital.