Sunday, May 17, 2009

Al-Shabaab Takes Key Somali Town

Militants take key Somali town, warlord defects

Sun May 17, 2009 1:31pm BST

Islamist fighters capture strategic town

Sixty eight killed in fighting in central region

Opposition leader defects to government

By Abdi Sheikh and Ibrahim Mohamed

MOGADISHU, May 17 (Reuters) - Militant Islamist fighters captured a strategic town north of Mogadishu on Sunday, leaving government forces isolated in pockets of the anarchic country's capital and central region after two weeks of heavy clashes.

In a sign of some disarry among militant ranks however, a former warlord and powerful opposition leader defected to the government side over the weekend.

President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed's United Nations-backed government -- the 15th attempt to establish central rule in the country -- is struggling like predecessors to contain powerful insurgents, currently led by hardline militant al Shabaab.

"Al Shabaab captured Jowhar after serious fighting on Sunday morning," resident Ismail Farah told Reuters.

"At least seven people including four civilians died."

Jowhar, Ahmed's hometown, is 90 km (56 miles) from Mogadishu and links it to the volatile central region where local sources say 68 people have been killed in clashes between al Shabaab and a moderate Islamist group since Friday.

Over the past two weeks, fighting in southern Somalia has killed at least 172 civilians and wounded 528 others, according to a local rights group.

Somali Security Minister Omar Hashi Aden said the militants were being supported from outside. He has previously accused Eritrea of sending weapons to insurgents. Asmara denies that.

"They are fighting in Mogadishu, and central Somalia. They have also started a war in Jowhar. They are economically and militarily supported ... it is not cheap to sustain fighting."

Eighteen years of conflict have destabilised the region, sent tens of thousands across the border, and drawn foreign militants and a flood of arms to the Horn of Africa nation.

Pirates have taken advantage of the anarchy with ever bolder attacks on international shipping. Nearly 30 hijackings so far this year have set it on course to be the worst ever.


In a much-needed boost for the government, former warlord and powerful opposition leader Sheikh Yusuf Mohamed Siad, also known as "Inda'ade", defected to its side over the weekend, the security minister said.

"It is a victory that Sheikh Yusuf Siad and his 15 battle wagons joined the government," Hashi said.

Inda'ade's group, Hizbul Islam, confirmed the defection but said it would not change anything. "(Inda'ade) and his troops have left us and joined the government ... but that will not affect us," said Hassan Mahdi, spokesman for the group.

Hizbul Islam is an umbrella opposition group including militant leader Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, seen as a powerful figure among insurgents. Aweys said Inda'ade had given most of his weapons to him before defecting.

The International Crisis Group think tank said Somalia's opposition groups had become deeply divided. "There is now a battle shaping up between reportedly moderate Muslims and the extremists, such as Al-Shabaab," it said.

On Friday and Saturday, fighting between Shabaab and a moderate Islamist group in two central towns killed some 68 people and sent 3,300 others fleeing from their homes, pro-government forces and a rights group said.

"We have killed 47 al Shabaab fighters including a white man in Mahas and Wabho," Sheikh Abdullahi Sheikh Abu Yusuf, spokesman of the moderate Ahlu Sunna Waljamaca, told Reuters, adding that three of their fighters had been killed.

The Mogadishu-based Elman Peace and Human Rights group said 18 civilians were killed in those clashes, and that 3,300 people had fled their homes. "Fighting continues non-stop in those areas," said Yasin Ali Gedi, vice chairman of the group.

(Additional reporting by Mohamed Ahmed; writing by Jack Kimball; editing by Philippa Fletcher)

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