NAIROBI, Kenya – A top leader of Somalia's ousted Islamic movement seen by the U.S. as a potential key to preventing a widespread insurgency there surrendered to authorities and is under protection in Nairobi, officials said Monday.
Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, who has been described by a U.S. diplomat as a moderate who could play a role in reconciling Somali factions, crossed into Kenya, went to a police station along the border on Sunday and was flown to Nairobi, according to a police report seen by The Associated Press.
The U.S. said it was not involved in protecting Ahmed, who apparently feared for his life in Somalia, where remnants of his Council of Islamic Courts are being hunted by Ethiopian troops and Somali government forces.
"The U.S. government is not holding or interrogating Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed and was not involved in his capture or surrender," a U.S. Embassy official said, speaking on condition of anonymity as they weren't authorized to talk to the media.
U.S. Ambassador Michael Ranneberger has repeatedly said Ahmed is a moderate Islamic leader who should be part of a national reconciliation process in Somalia.
Ahmed was the chairman of the Executive Council of Islamic Courts and shared the leadership with the Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys, who was chairman of the court's legislative council. While Ahmed is considered a moderate, Aweys is on a U.S. list of people with suspected ties to the al-Qaida terror network, though he has repeatedly denied having links to international terrorists.
If Ahmed agrees to hold talks with Somalia's government, it could be a major step toward preventing the widespread insurgency that many Islamic leaders have promised in Somalia.
Somali troops, with crucial aid from neighboring Ethiopia, drove the Council of Islamic Courts out of the capital and much of southern Somalia last month. But violence has been breaking out due to traditional clan rivalries and resentment among Somalis over the presence of Ethiopia.
Somalia, a Muslim country, and Ethiopia, with its large Christian population, fought a brutal war in 1977.
On Sunday, Somalia's government spokesman, Abdirahman Dinari, said Kenya has handed over 34 Islamic militiamen, and that some may be senior leaders of the Islamic movement.
Also Monday, Ethiopian troops killed three civilians in an area where Ethiopian forces have been attacked in recent days, a witness said.
The troops were firing at several gunmen who were trying to hide in a house in the Hurwa district, said Mustaf Hassan Ali, who saw the shooting in the neighborhood, considered a hotbed of sympathizers for the Islamic movement.
"The Ethiopians fired at the civilians when unknown gunmen sought refuge in their house," Ali said.
The government has invited African peacekeepers to help provide security in Somalia, but they are unlikely to come if fighting continues. African Union officials approved an 8,000-peacekeeper mission on Friday.
Somalia has been without an effective government since 1991, when warlords overthrew a dictator and turned on each other. The government was formed two years ago with the help of the United Nations, but was weakened by internal rifts.
The intervention of Ethiopia prompted a military advance that was a stunning turnaround for the administration, which is struggling to assert control in this chaotic country.