Somalia: Rare Plane Landing Brought Arms for Islamic Militants

Somalia's virtually powerless government said a cargo plane that landed at the capital's airport Wednesday morning was carrying weapons for Islamic militants who have seized control of much of southern Somalia.

The Ilyushin-76 was only the second aircraft to land at Mogadishu International Airport in more than a decade of anarchy here, demonstrating the Islamic militia's total control of the capital.

A spokesman for the country's official government, based 150 miles northwest of Mogadishu, said the plane was carrying land mines, bombs and long-range guns from Eritrea for a militia loyal to the Supreme Islamic Courts Council, the group that controls Mogadishu.

"I call for the Islamic courts and the Eritrean government to stop igniting a war in Somalia," Salad Ali Jeeley told The Associated Press. He said the Somali government knows what was on the plane through intelligence agents it has in Mogadishu.

A senior Islamic official, Sheik Yusuf Indohaadde, declined to comment.

An AP reporter watched the plane land Wednesday, but Islamic officials quickly ordered journalists to leave. The plane's tail carried a flag from Kazakhstan, a former Soviet republic that often makes its planes available for charter.

The relationship between the powerful Islamic militants and the weak government, which has international support but no military, has been deteriorating in recent weeks despite U.N. efforts to arrange peace talks.

CountryWatch: Somalia

The Islamic militia's rise has prompted particular concern in the United States, which accuses the group of harboring Al Qaeda leaders responsible for deadly 1998 bombings at the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

A U.N. envoy was in Somalia on Tuesday to try to arrange peace talks aimed at avoiding more fighting in Somalia.

The Islamic militia's leader, Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys, rebuffed the plan, saying he won't negotiate until the government expels all foreign troops. Neighboring Ethiopia has sent troops here to protect the government, according to widespread witness accounts.

Somali government leaders have denied Ethiopian soldiers were in Somalia, perhaps because they don't want to appear beholden to the country's traditional rival. Ethiopia, a largely Christian country, is the longtime enemy of Somalia, which is mostly Muslim.

But Somalia's president has ties to Ethiopia and has asked for its help in the past.

While Aweys ruled out any talks, a more moderate Islamic leader left open the possibility after meeting with Francois Lonseny Fall, the U.N. special representative to Somalia.

Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed said the group's "peace committee" still had to consider the United Nations' call for negotiations, which would be held next week in Khartoum, Sudan.

In an apparent acknowledgement that Ethiopian troops were complicating peace efforts, Fall told reporters: "The U.N. is always calling on maximum restraint from neighboring countries and for them not to interfere at this particular moment in Somalia."

He also praised the Islamic union. After seeing the streets of Mogadishu without roadblocks or gunmen, he said it had "achieved great things in Mogadishu."

Fall also went to Baidoa — the only town controlled by the government — where Abdirizak Adam, President Abdullahi Yusuf's chief of staff, said the government was ready for talks.

"Aweys is a terrorist, so it not surprising that he is refusing talks," Salad Ali Jeeley, a government spokesman, said. "We hope the moderate Islamists will attend the meeting."

Somalia has been without an effective central government since warlords toppled dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991 and then turned on each other, carving much of the country into armed camps ruled by violence and clan law.

The government was established almost two years ago with the support of the U.N. to serve as a transitional body to help Somalia emerge from anarchy. But the leadership, which includes some warlords linked to the violence of the past, has failed to establish any power.