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Somalia 'contact group' urges end to fighting, new talks

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Somali Islamic Courts Union gunmen secure a playground Thursday in Mogadishu.

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UNITED NATIONS (CNN) -- Diplomats led by the United States and Norway called Thursday for an immediate end to factional warfare in Somalia and talks between the interim government and the Islamic militia that now controls Mogadishu.

The new International Contact Group on Somalia said its priority was to support the U.N.-backed transitional government as the legitimate authority in Somalia but would "build upon existing positive relationships with Somali actors."

In a statement issued Thursday, the group agreed to work within the framework of the transitional government "to address the humanitarian needs of the Somali people, establish effective governance and stability and address the international community's concern regarding terrorism."

Idd Beddel Mohamed, the transitional government's deputy U.N. ambassador, called the contact group statement "good news."

Britain, Sweden, Italy, Tanzania and the European Union joined the United States and Norway in the contact group. Kenya, which has helped organize Somalia's struggling transitional government, was not invited, but the African Union, the Arab League, a group of East African states and the United Nations are taking part as observers.

"It is certainly a global responsibility to get Somalia back as a functioning state, because the void we have there is very dangerous not only for the Somali population but for the whole world," U.N. humanitarian coordinator Jan Egeland said. "It is now a place where children do not go to school, but where they become soldiers and terrorists and child soldiers at a rate which is just too scary."

Somalia's last functioning government collapsed in 1991, and the transitional government based in the inland city of Baidoa wields little influence. The Islamic Courts Union, a militia that backs the imposition of Islamic law in Somalia, seized control of Mogadishu last week from a U.S.-backed coalition of secular warlords, renewing concerns the lawless country could become a haven for al Qaeda terrorists.

Asked if the contact group could treat the Islamic Courts Union as a negotiating partner, Jendayi Frazer, the assistant U.S. secretary of state for African affairs, said, "We're not ruling that in or out."

"We would urge them to work with the transitional federal institutions as an immediate step," Frazer said.

The ICU has drawn comparisons to the Taliban, the fundamentalist militia that imposed a strict Islamic regime on Afghanistan and allowed al Qaeda to operate from its territory. The Somali group denies harboring terrorists and has sent a letter to the United States saying it is not an enemy of America.

U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan said Thursday he disagreed with the U.S. support for the warlords, "who brought such misery and destruction to their country." But he said the world will be watching the ICU to determine whether it will allow individual liberties while providing law and order.

"What is important is that we find a way of getting the Somalis to work together to eliminate the violence that has plagued that country for 16 years and begin to restore some order," Annan said. "And I would urge them to work together -- the Islamic Courts, the transitional government and the population."

At talks in Nairobi on Tuesday, transitional government officials said they planned to invite a new peacekeeping mission into Somalia, where U.S. and U.N. troops became embroiled in the country's civil war in the early 1990s. But the head of the ICU said Tuesday his group does not want international peacekeepers back in the country.

The transitional government also wants a partial lifting of the 13-year-old U.N. arms embargo against Somalia so that a regional peacekeeping force can be put in place -- a move Annan said would have to be studied carefully.

Mogadishu was the scene of a 1993 battle between U.S. troops and a warlord militia that killed 18 Americans and hundreds of Somalis. Frazer said any talk of international intervention would be premature, but each country in the contact group would be looking at the issue of the weapons embargo.

Contact group members are scheduled to meet again in Sweden in mid-July.

CNN's Liz Neisloss at the United Nations and Elise Labott at the State Department contributed to this report

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