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Somali leader seeks military aid

Somali President Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed
Somali President Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed was elected at the weekend

Somalia's new president has appealed for foreign military help to deal with "extremists" against the peace process, a senior official has said.

Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed was making his first major speech - at an African Union (AU) summit in Ethiopia - since being elected last week by Somali MPs.

The moderate Islamist used to lead an armed opposition movement ousted by Ethiopian forces in late 2006.

His call came as Ethiopia denied its troops had returned to Somalia.

They had pulled out last month.

The president did not specify if he was talking about extra AU peacekeepers, a UN mission, or another force.

But Somali foreign ministry permanent secretary official Mohammed Jama told the BBC the president had spoken to the AU about "extremists who will abuse the peace process".

"We are asking the international community to assist," he added.

However, Abdiraham Abdishakur Warsame, a senior member of the Somali delegation in Addis Ababa, played down the call for foreign intervention, telling the BBC's Somali Service that the president's priority was reconciliation.

Ethiopian soldiers spent two years in Somalia, battling the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) led by Mr Ahmed.

He was elected president last Friday as part of a UN-brokered plan to try to form a unity government and bring peace to Somalia for the first time since 1991.

But the hardline Islamist militia al-Shabab, which took advantage of Ethiopia's pull-out to boost its control of the south, accuses him of selling out to the West.

The US backed the Ethiopian intervention in Somalia and carried out several air-strikes, saying it was targeting al-Qaeda operatives linked to the UIC - who denied any such ties.

'Big stupid naked lie'

Al-Shabab - which last week seized Baidoa, the seat of the Somali parliament - has been holding protests against the new president.

The radical group's leader, Sheikh Mukhtar Robow, vowed on Tuesday to intensify its attacks on the AU mission in Somalia (Amisom), which is trying to fill the vacuum left by Ethiopian troops.

File pic of Ethiopian soldiers outside their base in Mogadishu in January 2009
Ethiopia strongly denies its troops are back in Somalia

The threat came a day after Somali officials accused AU soldiers of spraying gunfire in a crowded area of Mogadishu - killing 20 people - after an Amisom convoy was targeted by a roadside bomb.

But at a press conference in the capital on Tuesday, Amisom spokesman Maj Bahuko Baridgye labelled claims that his forces had opened fire on civilians as "a big stupid naked lie".

He said: "The fragments from the explosion are the ones that cut those people… there's no bullet that ever cut a body into two pieces - it's not there."

Only about 3,600 Ugandan and Burundian peacekeepers, from an intended 8,000-strong AU force, are deployed in Mogadishu.

The UN Security Council last month agreed in principle to a proposal to send a peacekeeping force in Somalia, but delayed a decision about such a mission until June.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said last year Somalia was too dangerous for peacekeepers to be sent there.

Local officials meanwhile claimed Ethiopian forces had set up a checkpoint in the Hiran region of central Somalia, some 20km (12 miles) from the border.

"The Ethiopian forces are violating the basic integrity of Somalia again," UIC commander Ahmed Osman Abdalla told AFP news agency.

But Ethiopian Information Minister Bereket Simon told Reuters news agency: "The army is within the Ethiopian border. There is no intention to go back."

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