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Islamic leader says Al-Qaeda does not exist in Somalia

Somalia has been mired in chaos since 1991 when warlords overthrew dictator Mohamed Barre.

world Updated: Apr 16, 2007 17:09 IST

The leader of a radical Islamic movement that ruled much of southern Somalia before being driven out in December said "there is no Al-Qaeda in Somalia," disputing allegations that the group has links to the terrorist organisation.

Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, chairman of the Council of Islamic Courts, has rarely spoken in public since his forces were ousted during a swift operation led by troops from neighbouring Ethiopia.

The United States and other Western powers have long accused the group of having links to terrorism.

"Let me tell you there is no Al-Qaeda in Somalia," Ahmed told Al-Jazeera television in an interview broadcast on Monday.

He said his movement "doesn't have any relationship with Al-Qaeda. It was chosen by the Somali people to serve clear objectives and aims and they were achieved."

The interview was conducted in the last week in the gulf state of Qatar.

The Islamic group's strict interpretation of Islam drew comparisons to the former Taliban regime in Afghanistan, with its leaders terrifying residents into submission with the threat of public executions and floggings.

But many Somalis credited the council with bringing a semblance of order to the country.

Since the Islamic movement was ousted by Somali government troops and their Ethiopian backers, Somalia has endured some of the heaviest fighting in more than a decade, with attacks blamed on insurgents linked to the Islamic group.

Four days of bloodshed that started in late March killed hundreds of people -- and possibly more than 1,000 -- in the worst fighting in 15 years.

On Sunday, the chairman of a committee planning a peace and reconciliation conference said the meeting would be held June 14 -- the second time it has been postponed.

"We are trying to reconcile the Somali clans and we are waiting for international support," Ali Mahdi Mohmamed said.

Also Sunday, insurgents battled Ethiopian and Somali troops using machine guns and mortars.

The death toll was not immediately clear; one day earlier, two Somali soldiers were fatally shot in the back in an ambush.

The battles in March started when Ethiopian troops used tanks and attack helicopters in an offensive to crush insurgents.

The militants reject any secular government, and have sworn to fight until Somalia becomes an Islamic emirate.

The UN refugee agency says more than 200,000 people have fled Mogadishu since the beginning of February.

Somalia has been mired in chaos since 1991, when warlords overthrew dictator Mohamed Siad Barre and then turned against each other.

A national government was established in 2004, but has failed to assert any real control.

First Published: Apr 16, 2007 15:12 IST