Somali children being forced into war, says leader

Claim comes as President faces possible overthrow by rival Islamist groups

Somalia's embattled president has accused Islamic extremist militias of recruiting child soldiers in their efforts to take over the country. Shaikh Sharif Shaikh Ahmed said yesterday that Hizb ul-Islam, and Al-Shabaab, a militant group with links to al-Qa'ida, was training and deploying children in frontline fighting.

The accusation came as the capital, Mogadishu, was braced for the arrival of a controversial 40-tonne "weapons donation" from the US and Western diplomats warned that the UN-backed administration could fall "within days" if government forces were unable to turn the tide against insurgents.

But there are fears that the show of support from the US will weaken the Sharif government, which is portrayed as foreign puppet by its opponents. "The charge against the Sharif government is that it is an international stooge so a public weapons donation has the potential to undermine public support for the government," said Roger Middleton, a Somalia expert with the UK think-tank Chatham House.

The Sharif government, considered a moderate Islamic administration, is in a fight for survival with an alliance of extremist organisations which control much of the south of the country. "This government could fall within days but it is still the only administration to work with," said a diplomat in Nairob , speaking on condition of anonymity.

The increased US support for Shaikh Sharif comes amid fears that, if the government falls. Somalia could become a haven for foreign jihadists similar to Afghanistan before the 9/11 attacks on America. The Somali President, whose forces are hemmed into a small area of the capital, declared a state of emergency last week and appealed for foreign military assistance.

Ethiopia, which invaded its neighbour three years ago, has ruled out a fresh intervention and Kenya has mobilised units on its northern border but said it will not send troops. The only outside military presence is an African Union force of 4,250 peacekeepers from Uganda and Burundi, who are largely confined to their Mogadishu base by constant attacks.

The new government, which has failed to push back Islamic militias, claims the insurgents are terrorists being aided by foreign jihadists and has now accused them of running training camps where children are forced to take up arms. "The terrorist groups forcibly conscript children for soldiers and al-Qa'ida is involved in this, even their leaders have admitted that," Shaikh Sharif told reporters. The savage street battle for Mogadishu is said to have displaced more than 160,000 people in the past month.