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Somalis shocked by UN report of al Qaeda activity

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Acts of terror

MOGADISHU, Somalia (Reuters) -- Shocked by a U.N. report that their country hosted al Qaeda fighters, Somalis said on Thursday they feared the findings might disrupt international attempts to heal more than a decade of anarchy.

The report said al Qaeda fighters trained and armed in Somalia organised a suicide attack on an Israeli-owned hotel in Kenya a year ago and a botched attempt to shoot down an Israeli airliner taking off nearby.

At least four al Qaeda suspects remain in Somalia, where additional weapons may have been imported for the purpose of carrying out further attacks in east Africa, according to a draft of the report obtained by Reuters on Tuesday.

Somalis, long weary of the fighting between rival warlords, said they feared the report's revelations of suspected activity by Saudi-born militant Osama bin Laden's followers would undermine efforts to reverse the country's long collapse.

"Before, I thought there was only a little such activity going on, but this huge activity in our country is a danger to our innocent people," said Said Duale, manager of the Wireless African Communication Company. "This kind of activity will prevent Somalia getting back to towards law and order."

Some Somali faction leaders have pointed to the danger of militant activity as a reason for increased international efforts to restore central authority.

Rival warlords have carved Somalia into a patchwork of fiefdoms since the overthrow of former military ruler Siad Barre in 1991, defying 14 peace initiatives aimed at piecing the country of seven million back together.

The latest attempt to unify Somalia's divisions has run into problems in Kenya in recent weeks, with the withdrawal of key faction leaders after more than a year of negotiations.

Exploiting Somalia

The United States has warned that al Qaeda fighters seeking a new refuge after being chased out of Afghanistan might hide in Somalia, using its lack of authority to cloak their activities.

The U.N. report said it was relatively easy to obtain surface-to-air missiles and import them to Somalia, noting that the missiles used in the failed attack on an Israeli airliner leaving Mombasa last November were brought to Somalia from Yemen.

The document was written by an expert panel investigating arms smuggling into Somalia in violation of a 1992 arms embargo and is due to be presented to the U.N. Security Council.

Residents in the northern port town of Bosaso said the report helped to explain mysterious trips by ships docking at Bosasa at Yemen, apparently without passengers.

Others were keen to point out the paradox of Somalia: gunmen with truck-mounted machineguns still roam the streets of Mogadishu, but ranks of businessmen and professionals seeking to rebuild are exerting a growing influence towards order.

"We can export these bad ideas to outside countries, but at the same time we can show the world that a community can manage without a central government," said schoolteacher Yusuf Ali.

But for many Somalis, the dominant feeling was one of surprise that al Qaeda could be operating within their capital -- and fear for what it might mean for the future.

"I think the international community won't solve our problems because it is our people who committed those crimes, with the support of some international terrorists," said peace activist Halimo Kaahie.

"Somalia is a no-man's land, and many of those who live here are not genuine Somali citizens," she said.

Copyright 2003 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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