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MILITIAMAN: An Islamist militiaman mans an anti-aircraft gun mounted on a pickup truck inside a former government building in Mogadishu August 16.

MOGADISHU, Somalia,   Aug 17, 2006 – Hardline Islamists controlling much of southern Somalia forcibly broke up a meeting of moderate clerics in the capital Thursday, further asserting their authority in the lawless nation.

Officials with the Supreme Islamic Council of Somalia (SICS) said that the conference of clerics and peace activists from the Al Islah group in a Mogadishu hotel was illegal as it had not been approved.

"The meeting was not licensed and the organizers did not have permission to hold it," SICS spokesman Abdukarim Ali Muddey said after heavily armed Islamic gunmen broke up the meeting. "We have to be a community ruled by laws.

"People must seek permission to have a meeting, and we will license it as long as the forum is not a threat to public safety or Islamic teaching," he said.

Members of Al Islah, a charity that operates Muslim clinics and schools throughout Somalia, confirmed that the meeting had been disbanded but declined to discuss the matter further.

The agenda for the conference was not clear, but the group has been pushing for a resumption of dialogue between the Islamists and Somalia's increasingly weak and marginalized transitional government.

Arab League-mediated talks between the two sides slated to resume this week in Khartoum failed to take off after the Islamists demanded a delay and the withdrawal of Ethiopian troops alleged to be in Somalia to back the government.

During the first round of talks in June, both sides agreed to cease fire and recognize each other, but they have since traded accusations of violations.

The rise of the Islamists, who seized Mogadishu from warlords in June after months of fierce fighting and have rapidly expanded their territory since, poses a severe threat to the government's already limited authority.

As they have moved beyond the capital, the Islamists have begun to enforce an increasingly strict brand of Sharia law, closing down cinemas and photo shops and punishing what they consider to be un-Islamic behavior.

Somalia has been without a functioning central authority for the past 16 years since the 1991 ouster of strongman Mohamed Siyad Barre.

Source: AFP, Aug 17, 2006


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