NAIROBI, Kenya - A fugitive Islamist leader praised recently by the U.S. government as a moderate who could bring much-needed public support to Somalia's transitional government has surrendered to Kenyan authorities, U.S. officials said yesterday.

Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, a former teacher who rose to become chairman of the executive council of Somalia's Council of Islamic Courts, is being held for questioning at a Nairobi hotel, the officials said.

Ahmed, who functioned as de facto president of the courts council, surrendered to Kenyan police Sunday at the border city of Liboi, where thousands of Somalis have been waiting to enter refugee camps. Kenyan forces sealed the border to search for fleeing Islamic fighters.

After seizing control of Mogadishu in June, the Council of Islamic Courts dissolved last month amid an onslaught by thousands of Ethiopian and Somalian government troops. Ahmed and other top leaders of the courts council went into hiding.

Ahmed is seen by many as a possible bridge to resolving differences between the transitional government, which is still fighting for legitimacy, and the Islamic courts, which won public respect for restoring security to Mogadishu after years of warlords and clan fighting. Somalia has not had a functioning central government since 1991.

Ahmed's surrender was confirmed by U.S. and other Western officials who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the situation.

U.S. officials are pressuring the transitional government to reach out to moderate Islamist leaders and bring them into the government. Ahmed's cooperation might help short-circuit a growing Islamic insurgency that is launching attacks inside Mogadishu.

U.S. officials said they were not involved in Ahmed's surrender and have not yet interviewed him, although Americans are eager to debrief him about the whereabouts of three high-value al-Qaeda suspects wanted in terrorist attacks in Kenya and Tanzania. U.S. officials believe al-Qaeda operatives had infiltrated the courts.

A spokesman for the Somalian government declined to comment on Ahmed's detention.