NAIROBI, Kenya – The leader of Somalia's Council of Islamic Courts said Wednesday that a peace deal can be found, but only if neighboring Ethiopia withdraws troops now protecting a weak transitional government.
Islamic militias loyal to Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys have taken over much of the country and flanked the internationally backed government on three sides, prompting fears of civil war or a regional war drawing in Somalia's neighbors.
Ethiopia has sent military advisers to train the government's military, and two regional organizations have tried to start peace talks between the two sides.
Aweys told The Associated Press in an interview that peace is possible only if Somali leaders are left alone to talk among themselves. He met on Monday with the speaker of the transitional parliament, Sharif Hassan Sheik Aden, who flew to Mogadishu after internationally mediated peace talks in Sudan failed to start.
"'Let's talk' means 'let's make peace,'" Aweys said by telephone from Mogadishu, Somalia's capital. "We expect to reach a solution because it is a known fact that if Somalis talk to one another they can make peace."
The international community has expressed support for the transitional government, even though it only controls the town of Baidoa, 150 miles northwest of Mogadishu. Since June, the Islamic courts have taken control of most of southern Somalia and have demanded a new Islamic government.
Somalia has not had an effective government since 1991, when warlords overthrew a dictator and then turned on one another. The government was formed with the help of the U.N. two years ago.
Islamic militiamen have begun imposing a strict form of Islamic law in the areas they control, closing movie theaters, carrying out public executions and disarming clan militias that had divided the country into warring fiefdoms for 15 years. The courts have also begun training thousands of young men to join their militia.
Both the courts and the government have massed troops outside of Baidoa and there have been reports of skirmishes north of Mogadishu, stoking fears of all-out war.
Ethiopia has acknowledged sending a few hundred troops to help the transitional government, but Aweys said there are thousands of Ethiopian troops in the country in what he calls an invasion. Ethiopia has accused its longtime rival Eritrea of sending thousands of troops to help the Islamic courts attack Ethiopia, something Aweys denies.
"Ethiopia has to stop its interference in Somalia," Aweys said. "There are no foreigners among us and we don't need them. We have sufficient Somalis and our troops are Somali citizens."
Aweys, who appears on U.S. and U.N. lists of people with alleged terrorist ties, has repeatedly denied any links to any terrorist organization.
He also denied that his troops' continued advance was a threat to the government, insisting that the only reason his forces have been preparing for war is because they oppose Ethiopia.
"We are preparing for a war because foreign troops are in our country," Aweys said. "We are not attacking the Somali government ... Ethiopians are the ones attacking us, we are on defense."
Aweys complained about what he said was Western bias against Muslims and asked why the Islamic courts were not being praised for bringing stability to southern Somalia after 15 years of lawlessness and chaos.
"Instead of rewarding us for the achievements we have made so far, the world is fighting us," Aweys said. "The whole world failed to solve the Somalia problem, but we have solved it in five months."