NAIROBI (Reuters) â€” Somali Islamist leader Sheikh Sharif Ahmed was under guard in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, on Monday after being taken into custody on the Somali border, Western diplomats and intelligence officials said.
If confirmed, Ahmed would be the highest-ranking member of the former Somali Islamist rulers to turn himself in after a late December blitz by Ethiopian and Somali interim government troops routed them from southern Somalia.
Ahmed is considered a moderate in the Islamist movement and before the war was among those the United States said should be involved in reconciliation talks in Somalia.
“We understand that Sheikh Sharif did surrender at the border on the 21st,” a Western diplomat said, adding he was being kept under guard at a smart hotel in Nairobi.
Two other Western diplomats confirmed the information as did a top Somali intelligence official. “They captured him in the Liboi area,” the Somali intelligence official said.
Liboi is a border post near Somalia’s southern tip, where Ethiopian and Somali troops have been hunting Islamists.
The United States conducted an air strike against what it called Al Qaeda operatives among the Islamist ranks two weeks ago in its first publicly confirmed military action there since ending a disastrous peacekeeping mission in 1994.
The United States embassy in Kenya, responsible for Somalia, said Kenya handled the surrender.
“The US is not holding or protecting or interrogating Sheikh Sharif. We were not involved in his capture or surrender,” a US official said on condition of anonymity.
The Kenyan and Somali governments had no immediate comment.
Moderate with an AK-47
Diplomats spoken to by Reuters said Kenya and possibly the United States most likely had a role in brokering Ahmed’s surrender, with help from Somali and Kenyan politicians of Somali ethnic origin sympathetic to Islamist moderates.
Since the war, the United States has said that all Somalis who renounce violence and extremism should be included in reconciliation.
A US official who spoke on condition of anonymity said Ahmed’s reputation suffered in Washington’s eyes in the build-up to the war, but that he could have a role in reconciliation if he persuaded his followers to stop fighting. Ahmed, a former geography teacher who was one of the most visible faces of the Somalia Islamic Courts Council (SICC), wore combat fatigues and clutched an AK-47 while declaring jihad against Ethiopia at a news conference in October.
But the SICC’s belligerence vanished as they were run out of strongholds by Ethiopian air power and armour supporting Somali government troops in a two-week war.
The Islamists have vowed to conduct a war, and many suspect their hardcore fighters have been behind a spate of attacks in Mogadishu, the latest of which occurred on Monday. Ethiopian troops and Somali police shot at protesters who hurled stones and fired back with assault rifles. Three people were killed and five wounded in the clash, a witness and a local journalist who asked not to be named said.
The witness said Ethiopian troops returned to a livestock market in the coastal city where an attack on an Ethiopian convoy set off a clash that killed four on Saturday.
Ethiopia wants to pull out of Somalia, and on Monday a Somali government source said Ethiopian Foreign Minister Seyoum Mesfin met President Abdullahi Yusuf at the capital’s Villa Somalia compound, which was pounded by mortars on Friday.
Ethiopia and Yusuf’s government want an African Union-backed peacekeeping force of nearly 8,000 troops to help the government keep control of Somalia after Ethiopia goes.
European Union aid Commissioner Louis Michel on Monday told reporters in Brussels he was tying 15 million euros ($19 million) to pay for the troops to an inclusive reconciliation effort by the government.
Malawi’s defence minister, Davies Katsonga, said on Monday the southern African country will deploy troops.
“We are still discussing how many we will send, probably a battalion in the next two months in response to the African Union,” Katsonga told Reuters in Lilongwe.
Many doubt the AU’s capacity to muster the full contingent, let alone tame a nation that defied the combined efforts of US and UN peacekeepers in the early 1990s. Â