Thu Apr 23, 2009 9:29am EDT
By Ibrahim Mohamed
MOGADISHU (Reuters) – Hardline Islamist opposition leader Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys returned to Somalia on Thursday in his first known trip back to the Horn of Africa nation since being ousted two years ago.
Aweys, who is on the U.S. list of terrorism suspects for alleged links to al Qaeda, has been an important opposition lightning rod and is believed to have much influence over some of the Islamist insurgents battling the Somali government.
Aweys told dozens of supporters gathered to welcome him that he wanted Somalis to unite.
“I know Somalis. Everybody or group wants to do what they want. I hope this won’t be the case now. We Islamists all have a common purpose,” he said in a brief speech.
Aweys landed at a small airstrip 50 km (30 miles) from the capital Mogadishu and met the leader of Hizbul Islam, an umbrella group of four organizations including the one that Aweys heads.
“(Aweys) will be staying with us, and we shall be having discussions on the current political situation in Somalia,” said Omar Abubukar, leader of Hizbul Islam.
Government officials were not immediately available for comment.
Hizbul Islam has been fighting alongside al Shabaab militants against government forces and peacekeepers in the capital and other central areas.
Aweys — who has been living in Eritrea — denies any terrorism links. The cleric heads the Asmara-based Alliance for the Re-Liberation (ARS) of Somalia, which he took over from current Somali president, Sheikh Sharif Ahmed.
The president’s aides say he has been pushing to get Aweys taken off the U.S. list and join the political process.
They say Ahmed left some empty seats in a new expanded parliament in case Aweys and his party want to join the government at a later date.
Aweys and Ahmed had worked alongside one another in the Islamic Courts Union that ruled Somalia’s capital and much of the south before being forced out by Ethiopia in late 2006.
The two split after Ahmed, a moderate Islamist, went to Djibouti for U.N.-backed talks that saw him elected president.
Islamist-led rebels have continued to battle the interim government, waging hit-and-run attacks on Somali troops and African Union (AU) peacekeepers in fighting that has displaced one million people and killed thousands.
Donors meeting in Brussels on Thursday pledged more than $250 million to help Somali forces improve security and restore order in a state that has been wrecked by civil conflict since 1991.
“I think what we have to do now on our part is to support the authorities, to ask the government to make it as inclusive as possible and of course to fund the needs of development,” said Jose Manuel Barroso, European Commission President.
(Writing by Jack Kimball)