One of the top leaders of Somalia's Islamic movement has turned himself over to U.S. and Kenyan authorities and is under their protection in Nairobi, officials said Monday.
Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, who has been described by a U.S. diplomat as a moderate who could play a role in reconciling Somali factions, crossed into Kenya and was flown immediately to Nairobi, a Kenyan security official said on condition of anonymity because the operation was supposed to be secret. Ahmed was under U.S. protection at a top hotel, a Somali official said, also asking for anonymity for the same reason.
A U.S. Embassy spokeswoman said she could not immediately comment.
Ahmed was apparently afraid for his life following his decision to leave Somalia, where remnants of his Council of Islamic Courts were being hunted by Ethiopian troops and Somali government forces. It was not immediately clear when he turned himself in.
U.S. Ambassador Michael Ranneberger has repeatedly said Ahmed is a moderate Islamic leader the U.S. thinks should be part of a national reconciliation process in Somalia. Ahmed was the chairman of the Executive Council of Islamic Courts and shared the leadership with the Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys, who was chairman of the court's legislative council.
If Ahmed agrees to hold talk with Somalia's government, it could be a major step toward preventing the widespread insurgency that many Islamic leaders have promised in Somalia.
Somali troops, with crucial aid from neighboring Ethiopia, drove the Council of Islamic Courts out of the capital and much of southern Somalia last month. But violence has been breaking out due to traditional clan rivalries and resentment among Somalis over the presence of Ethiopia.
Somalia, a Muslim country, and Ethiopia, with its large Christian population, fought a brutal war in 1977.
Also Monday, witnesses said Ethiopian troops killed three people during a three-hour operation in an area where Ethiopian forces have been attacked in recent days, reports AP.
The troops were firing at several gunmen who were trying to hide in a house in the Hurwa district, said Mustaf Hassan Ali, who witnessed the shooting. He said the victims were not the gunmen but civilians in the home. Hurwa is an area of the Somali capital that is considered a hotbed of sympathizers for the Islamic movement.
"The Ethiopians fired at the civilians when unknown gunmen sought refuge in their house," Ali said.
Ethiopian troops have come under fire frequently in the Hurwa district, which is considered a hotbed of sympathizers for the Council of Islamic Courts.