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Friday, June 9, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Militia, government begin talks in Somalia

The Associated Press

MOGADISHU, Somalia — The Islamic militia that defeated U.S.-backed warlords and seized nearly all of southern Somalia held talks Thursday with Somalia's largely powerless government on the future of the lawless nation.

In a surprise, both the United States and the European Union issued somewhat conciliatory statements about the Islamic militia, which has been accused of sheltering al-Qaida leaders and wants to end 16 years of Somali anarchy by installing an Islamic government and court system.

The Islamic Courts Union militiamen still face fierce opposition from a clan-controlled pocket of the capital, Mogadishu, even though they drove out secular fighters Monday. The radical Islamic militia's growing power has forced officials in Somalia's interim government, and around the world, to take notice.

The U.S. has said it has worried most about terrorists sheltering in Somalia — and that the courts union is hosting at least three al-Qaida leaders. But this week it also said the group's goal was to restore "some semblance of order."

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said in Washington on Wednesday that the Islamic group's aim "is to try to lay the foundations for some institutions in Somalia that might form the basis for a better and more peaceful, secure Somalia where the rule of law is important."

EU foreign-policy chief Javier Solana said Thursday he supported the interim government's decision to launch a "dialogue" in Mogadishu.

The U.S. statement came too soon after the Islamic militia's victory to represent a real policy shift, said John Prendergast, a senior adviser with the International Crisis Group. He said Washington likely was still reaching out to more moderate elements of the group.

U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, have confirmed cooperating with the secular warlords opposing the union.

Somalia has been without a real government since largely clan-based warlords overthrew longtime dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991 and then turned on each other, dividing this Horn of Africa nation of 8 million into a patchwork of rival fiefdoms.

The United States has not carried out direct action in Somalia since the deaths of 18 servicemen in a 1993 battle in Mogadishu.

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The U.S. also has said that Islamic leaders in Mogadishu are sheltering three al-Qaida leaders indicted in the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 231 people. The same al-Qaida cell is believed responsible for the 2002 suicide bombing of an Israeli-owned hotel in Kenya, which killed 15 people, and a simultaneous attempt to shoot down an Israeli airliner over Kenya.

Recent fighting in the capital has killed at least 330 people, many of them civilians.

Two ministers from the interim government were meeting with "top leaders of the Islamic Courts Union" in Mogadishu, government spokesman Abdirahman Nur Mohamed Dinari said.

The interim government has not been able to enter the capital because of the violence, instead operating 155 miles away in the town of Baidoa.

The severely weakened secular alliance was preparing to defend its last stronghold in Jowhar, 60 miles northwest of Mogadishu. If militiamen capture Jowhar and consolidate power in Mogadishu, the Islamic Courts Union will effectively control all the major towns in the south except Baidoa.

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