Islamist to lead Somali opposition alliance

(Adds Aweys quotes, details)

ASMARA, Sept 14 (Reuters) - Somali opposition figures on Friday named a senior Islamist as chairman of a "liberation" alliance vowing war on Ethiopian troops and demanding the exit of Ugandan peacekeepers from the Horn of Africa nation.

"Resistance to the occupation is a legitimate and sacred right. It is a national duty as well as a religious obligation for all citizens," read a final communique from the week-long conference of hundreds of opposition delegates in Eritrea.

They chose 43-year-old Sheikh Sharif Ahmed -- one of the two highest-ranking leaders of Somalia's Islamic Courts movement -- to steer the new opposition grouping.

Sharif's sharia courts group wrested Mogadishu and most of south Somalia from warlords in mid-2006.

Credited by Somalis with bringing stability for the first time in 15 years but also criticised for hardline religious practices, its six-month rule ended at the New Year when allied Ethiopian and Somali government troops chased them out.

An Islamist-led insurgency has raged since then.

The communique said the new opposition movement would be called the "Alliance For The Re-Liberation Of Somalia" or ARS -- a small modification on the previously announced "Alliance For The Liberation Of Somalia."

Including a wide range of figures from Islamists to former government members, ex-parliamentarians and members of the Somali diaspora, the delegates surprised some observers with their militant stance on the Somali crisis.

They have threatened immediate, although unspecified, military action against Ethiopia.

"The ARS will not enter into any talks with the so-called Transitional Federal Government before a complete withdrawal of the Ethiopian occupation army," the communique said.

It also took aim at the African Union (AU) peacekeeping force in Somalia, consisting of 1,600 Ugandan soldiers.

"The ARS demands the withdrawal of Ugandan troops from our country since their presence is illegal and has become at present part of the occupation force," it said.


Organisers said the Islamists would get about 40 percent of seats in the alliance's 191-member central committee, former MPs about 25 percent and members of the diaspora about 16 percent.

A former Somali parliament speaker was elected head of the central committee.

The movement also took a swipe at Washington, which backs Somalia's government and is thought by many regional diplomats to have given its blessing to ally Ethiopia to send troops in.

"The ARS calls upon the U.S. administration to reverse its anti-Somalia policy. The Somali people are devoted Muslims, but not terrorists. The ARS is not a terrorist organisation."

Chairman Ahmed is widely seen as a moderate in the sharia courts movement, and has had contacts with U.S. officials.

But also present in Eritrea was Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, who is on U.S. and U.N. lists of terrorism suspects. He took no formal role in the new alliance but pledged support.

"Every Somali has a role in this organisation to liberate his own country and I'm no different from any other Somali. So I'll play any role, but I don't have a position," he said.

He rejected suggestions he was directing the Mogadishu insurgency as "misleading", telling foreign media: "There's not any particular group that is fighting. The resistance comprises all Somalis, different people with different views."

The forging of the alliance in Asmara provides yet another bone of contention between long-time foes Eritrea and Ethiopia, who fought a border war in 1998-2000 and have, in the opinion of many diplomats, been fighting a proxy war over Somalia.

Analysts believe the formation of the alliance is likely to push back even further the prospect of desperately needed reconciliation in Somali politics.

That was underlined in Mogadishu on Friday, where four civilians and two government soldiers died in gun battles between security forces and Islamist-led guerrillas.

The violence came hours after the interim government lifted a dusk-to-dawn curfew for Ramadan. (Additional reporting by Aweys Yusuf in Mogadishu)