MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP) – The president of a semiautonomous region in northeastern Somalia said Monday he will rule according to Islamic law, a surprising announcement in an area that has resisted the spread of Islamic militants who control much of the country’s south.

Puntland President Gen. Addeh Museh did not cite a reason for his decision, but it comes amid increasing fears that the Council of Islamic Courts will try to seize his territory.

The move also isolates Somalia’s official government, which has watched helplessly as the Islamic movement steadily gained ground since June. The U.N. envoy to Somalia tried to bolster the fragile administration Monday, urging leaders to restart peace talks with the Islamists in order to avert a war.

John Prendergast, a senior adviser with the International Crisis Group, said Museh’s decree was a way to head off a takeover by the Islamic courts. “Puntland authorities are trying to pre-empt the ICU’s agenda before the ICU makes a major play to overtake the government there,” he said.

Somalia has not had an effective government since 1991, when warlords overthrew a dictator and then turned on each other. The current administration was formed with the help of the U.N. two years ago, but it has failed to assert any real control outside the southern town of Baidoa, where it is based.

Puntland, which declared itself an autonomous state within Somalia in 1998, has generally been spared the violence that has wracked much of the rest of the country. But radicals within the Islamic courts have vowed to take over.

“I set up a committee of scholars and traditional leaders to implement sharia law,” Museh said in his presidential decree. Puntland usually enforces a secular penal code, even though the region’s charter says it is based on sharia law.

The United States has accused Islamic movement of sheltering suspects in the 1998 al-Qaida bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Osama bin Laden has said Somalia is a battleground in his war on the West.

Francois Lonseny Fall, the U.N. secretary general’s special representative to Somalia, met briefly with Somali President Abdullahi Yusuf on Monday before meeting privately with Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi.

“We strongly urge the transitional federal institutions to remain committed to dialogue. The international community is very, very concerned,” Fall told Yusuf during his first visit to Somalia since August. Fall said his focus was to persuade the government, which has been wracked by infighting, to come together and restart talks with the Islamists.

Somalia’s most powerful lawmaker, Parliament Speaker Sharif Hassan Sheik Aden, traveled to Mogadishu earlier this month and brokered his own preliminary peace agreement with the courts, but the move was not authorized by the government.

Several peace initiatives in the country have failed, with both the government and Islamic movement trading accusations over who is to blame for the deadlock. Fears are mounting that a war in Somalia could engulf the region.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.