Leading Member of Islamic Courts Held in Kenya

Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, a leading member of Somalia's Islamic Courts Union, has reportedly surrendered to authorities in Kenya. He's seen as a moderate who could possibly play a role in Somalia's future.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

One of the senior leaders of the ousted government in Somalia is in Nairobi after turning himself into Kenyan authorities at the border. Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed was head of the Executive Council of the Islamic Courts Union. He's described as a moderate and a potential peacemaker. We go now to NPR's Gwen Thompkins, who is in Nairobi.

And Gwen, exactly how did this guy wind up in Nairobi? Was he wanted, as are some of the Islam's leaders in Somalia?

GWEN THOMPKINS: Well, Renee, it seems that as if he simply just crossed the border, went to a police station in Kenya - Northern Kenya - and turned himself in. That's the story that the Kenyan authorities are saying, and they're sticking to it. Now, there are also some Somalia watchers who believe that he probably had been in negotiations with Kenyan authorities and perhaps others to turn himself in, because his options were running out in Somalia.

MONTAGNE: Now, the U.S. has responded positively to this event. It's believed he can play a role in reconciling the various factions in Somalia. Can he?

THOMPKINS: Well, he just may, Renee. Because the U.S. ambassador, Michael Ranneberger - he's the ambassador to Kenya and also to Somalia. He has been very confident in his remarks of late saying that perhaps Sheikh Sharif might be able to play a role in the reconciliation. That, you know, there are all sorts of disparate factions in Somalia right now. The transitional government in Somalia - also known as the PFG - as it stands at this point, is not strong enough to bring them all together, and that they need to start a dialogue with Islamists, as well as other groups within Somalia, to try to forge a real nation.

Now, the ambassador's take on Sheikh Sharif as a moderate is something that should be taken in context. Sheikh Sharif is an Islamist, which basically means that he's got a fairly conservative agenda. It certainly was conservative six months ago when the Islamic Courts Union took over Mogadishu and much of Southern Somalia. But Sheikh Sharif appears to be moderate against the backdrop of far more extremist elements within the Islamic Courts Union.

Now, during the time that the Islamic Courts Union was in power in Somalia, he definitely was seen as a reasonable person, someone who could tamp down some of the rhetoric of the Islamic Courts Union. But as the months progressed, he seemed to be under pressure from the more extremist elements who wanted to adopt a far more belligerent and aggressive rhetoric - to take over the rest of the country, to impose Sharia law, a very conservative reading of the Koran. And he seemed to bow to that pressure.

I mean, in the final month of the Islamic Courts Union in Somalia, he was waving an AK-47 and declaring Jihad against neighboring Ethiopia. So, the question really is at this point, how much of his own man is Sheikh Sharif?

MONTAGNE: One last thing, Gwen, the Ethiopians are supposed to withdraw their troops. There's a report today that they have actually begun to do that.

THOMPKINS: Yes. The Ethiopian military and, in fact, the Ethiopian government have been very eager to get out of Somalia. Things have gotten very violent there. There has been a string of attacks on Ethiopian troops who are in Mogadishu and in other areas of the country. And they say that they don't have the money and they don't really have the will to stick around. So, they were hoping that the international community might be able to bring in peacekeepers before they were scheduled to leave. But it doesn't appear as if the peacekeeping team is going to arrive anytime soon. But the Ethiopians certainly want to withdraw.

MONTAGNE: Gwen, thanks very much.

THOMPKINS: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Gwen Thompkins in Nairobi, where a senior member of the ousted Islamist government in Somalia is being held.

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