Exodus of Somali ministers puts power in Islamists' hands

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Somalia's interim government lurched closer to collapse yesterday as 29 politicians, including four ministers, abandoned the unelected body, saying it should reconcile itself with the de facto regime of the Islamic Courts.

The latest defections from the crippled administration based in Baidoa, hundreds of miles from the capital Mogadishu, has raised further questions of credibility for a government which has international backing but practically no support within the country.

Five MPs had already resigned on Tuesday and 18 resigned late last week.

The leader of the Islamic Courts, Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, told a local radio station that the former ministers were welcome in his group.

"This is great step forward and we call everybody in the government to step aside," the Islamist leader Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys said. "It is not the correct cabinet that fits Somali people, so they have taken the correct decision. Every government member is welcome to join the Islamists to participate in rebuilding peace in Somalia," the cleric added.

Effective power in war-torn Somalia now lies in the hands of the Islamic Courts, an informal grouping which has waged a two-month campaign to overthrow the warlords who have held violent sway for a decade.

According to diplomats, several warlords have received significant aid in the form of cash and guns from the US, which sees them as a bulwark against the rise of an Islamic group it regards as militant.