NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) – A top leader of Somalia’s ousted Islamic movement, apparently afraid for his life now that the once-powerful militia has been chased into hiding, has surrendered and is in custody in neighboring Kenya, officials said Monday.

Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, considered a moderate member of the Council of Islamic Courts, went to a Kenyan police station along the Somali border Sunday and was flown to Nairobi, according to a police report seen by The Associated Press. A U.S. diplomat said last week that Ahmed could play a role in reconciling Somali factions.

If Ahmed agrees to hold talks with Somalia’s government, it could be a major step toward preventing the widespread insurgency that many Islamic leaders have threatened in Somalia. Ahmed is not believed to be wanted by the authorities, like other members of the Islamic group.

The United States said it was not involved in protecting Ahmed, whose whereabouts in Nairobi were not known. In Somalia, the remnants of the Islamic courts are being hunted by Ethiopian troops and Somali government forces.

“The U.S. government is not holding or interrogating Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed and was not involved in his capture or surrender,” a U.S. Embassy official said, reading from a statement.

U.S. Ambassador Michael Ranneberger has said Ahmed is a moderate Islamic leader who the United States believes should be part of a national reconciliation process in Somalia. Ahmed was the chairman of the Executive Council of Islamic Courts and shared the leadership with Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys, who was chairman of the court’s legislative council.

Aweys is on a U.S. list of people with suspected ties to al-Qaida, though he has repeatedly denied having ties to international terrorists.

Somali troops, with crucial aid from neighboring Ethiopia, drove the Council of Islamic Courts out of the capital and much of southern Somalia last month. But violence has been breaking out due to traditional clan rivalries and resentment among Somalis over the presence of Ethiopia.

Somalia, a Muslim country, and Ethiopia, with its large Christian population, fought a brutal war in 1977.

Islamic officials in hiding have also threatened to launch an Iraq-style guerrilla war.

On Monday, witnesses said Ethiopian troops killed three civilians in the capital’s Hurwa district, considered a hotbed of sympathizers for the Islamic movement.

The troops were firing at several gunmen who were trying to hide in a house, but hit the civilians instead, said Mustaf Hassan Ali, who saw the shooting.

The government has invited African peacekeepers to help provide security in Somalia, but they are unlikely to come if fighting continues.

Malawi’s defense minister said his southern African country would contribute a full or half battalion to a Somali peacekeeping mission, depending on what other countries do.

On Friday, the African Union Peace and Security Council approved a plan to send about 8,000 African peacekeepers, including nine infantry battalions, to Somalia for a six-month mission that would eventually be taken over by the U.N. The council said the initial deployment should have at least three battalions.

So far, only one other country, Uganda, has volunteered troops. Uganda’s ruling party approved the deployment of 1,500 troops – almost two battalions – last week, but parliament must approve the plan.

Also Monday, the European Union urged Somalia’s government to hold talks with other factions, including moderate Islamist leaders, to find a lasting peace settlement.

EU Development Commissioner Louis Michel said failure to hold “inclusive talks” with all other political factions, would sink efforts to stabilize the impoverished country. “It is the only way to get long-term stability and peace in Somalia,” he told reporters.

Somalia has been without an effective government since 1991, when warlords overthrew a dictator and turned on each other. The government was formed two years ago with the help of the United Nations, but was weakened by internal rifts.

The intervention of Ethiopia prompted a military advance that was a stunning turnaround for the administration, which is struggling to assert control.

Associated Press writers Mohamed Olad Hassan and Salad Duhul contributed to this report from Mogadishu, Somalia.

AP-ES-01-22-07 1639EST

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