NAIROBI -- Leaders of Somalia's interim government and the Islamist militias that have seized Mogadishu plan to meet for the first time today as diplomats try to avert a war over control of the country.
The talks, scheduled to take place in Sudan and organized by the Arab League, are being held amid international concern over the political goals of the Union of Islamic Courts, a coalition that drove US-backed warlords out of power earlier this month and raised fears that they would establish an outpost of extremist Islam in the strategic Horn of Africa.
The Islamists and the interim government are sharply divided over the government's support for an African peacekeeping force in Somalia, a totally shattered country that hasn't had an effective central government since 1991.
The Islamists say foreign intervention isn't needed because they have brought stability to the war-torn capital. But the weak interim government, based 150 miles outside Mogadishu, has said it can't rule without security from peacekeeping troops.
The Islamists now control Mogadishu and several surrounding towns and are seen as a threat to the internationally backed government, which was formed by a UN-led conference in 2004.
Yesterday , the State Department's top envoy for Africa said the Islamists needed to convince the international community that they won't advance on the government's base in the town of Baidoa.
``They need to stop in their tracks where they are right now," Jendayi Frazer, assistant US secretary of state, said in neighboring Kenya. ``Their movement out makes all of us question their intentions, their motives, and it also threatens the neighborhood."
Frazer met yesterday in Kenya with top officials from the interim government before flying to Sudan for the negotiations. She reiterated US support for the government and skepticism of the Islamist coalition, which includes radical elements that US officials fear could be hiding suspects in a series of terrorist attacks in East Africa in recent years.
According to published reports, the CIA had been secretly paying warlords to help hunt down suspected terrorists. Their swift defeat this month by the Islamists represented a setback for US counterterrorism efforts.
But Frazer said the Islamists' rise to power didn't change US policy on Somalia, which is chiefly to keep the country from becoming a terrorist haven.
Frazer said US officials had no plans to meet with the Islamists but expressed hope that their leader, Sheik Sherif Ahmed, would honor an earlier pledge not to threaten the interim government.
But those conciliatory tones vanished when Islamist leaders reacted angrily to unconfirmed reports that troops from neighboring Ethiopia had crossed over the border near Baidoa.