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Page last updated at 11:53 GMT, Thursday, 23 April 2009 12:53 UK

Islamist leader back in Somalia

Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys in 2005
Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys has influence with Somali Islamist groups

Islamist opposition leader Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys has returned to Somalia after two years in exile.

He fled to Eritrea in 2007 after Ethiopian troops ousted his movement, the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC).

While in Eritrea, Mr Aweys broke ranks with fellow UIC leader Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, now Somali president.

The US has labelled Mr Aweys a terrorist, but analysts say his return could help stabilise the country's fledgling government.

Mr Aweys flew into the Somali capital, Mogadishu, early on Thursday - an unpublicised and low-key return from exile for one the country's most influential conservative clerics, the BBC's East Africa correspondent Peter Greste said.

"[Aweys] will be staying with us, and we shall be having discussions on the current political situation in Somalia," Omar Abubukar, leader of Hizb al-Islamiya, an allied political party, said on Thursday.

Constant conflict

Mr Aweys and Mr Ahmed both headed the UIC, which ruled most of the country for the second half of 2006.

They fled to the Eritrean capital Asmara, where they formed the Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia (ARS).

The two men split after Mr Ahmed - considered the more moderate of the two - agreed to UN-led talks with the government that brought him to power in January 2009 and saw Ethiopia withdraw its troops.

Mr Aweys accused Mr Ahmed of siding with the enemy, and last July declared he had taken control of the ARS.

Mr Aweys is an influential leader of one of Mogadishu's most powerful clans, so his arrival in the capital suggests that relations between the two men has improved and some kind of agreement is one the table, our correspondent says.

If that is the case, it could significantly improve security in the capital, and give the government a badly needed boost of authority, he adds.

Radical Islamist guerrillas such as al-Shabab, which control parts of Mogadishu and much of central and southern Somalia, have sworn to topple the fragile government.

Somalia, a nation of about eight million people, has experienced almost constant civil conflict since the collapse of Mohamed Siad Barre's regime in January 1991.

Sheikh Aweys is on a US most-wanted list of suspected terrorists with links to al-Qaeda.



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