Rift Between Militia Groups Deepens of Somalia

Published on Saturday 3rd October 2009

Somalia's two main insurgent groups clashed today near the southern port of Kismayu and residents said Al-Shabaab and Hizbul Islam were squaring up for battles elsewhere in the Horn of Africa country.

The rebel groups fought for control of the lucrative port and main airport in southern Somalia this week.

Al-Shabaab won the battle, in which a local rights group said at least 28 civilians and an unknown number of combatants were killed.

Until then, the two influential insurgent groups, which control much of southern and central Somalia, had been allies in their fight against the UN-backed administration that is chiefly confined to the capital, Mogadishu.

Western donors have long hoped hardliners in al Shabaab, which Washington says is al Qaeda's proxy, could be isolated by a deal between more moderate Hizbul leaders and the government.

President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed has made little headway in wooing his former Islamist comrades in Hizbul Islam but fighting between the insurgents may at least give the government and African Union peacekeepers some breathing space.

Hizbul Islam and residents said the clashes late on Friday and early on Saturday were in two villages -- one 30 km (19 miles) and the other 60 km from Kismayu.

"After we left Kismayu, al Shabaab followed us and we fought and drove them back yesterday. They attacked us again this morning and fighting is going on in these villages," Ismail Adow, Hizbul Islam's spokesman told Reuters.

Hizbul Islam commander Mohamed Adan said his forces were chasing A-Shabaab back to Kismayu and they would not stop fighting until they had retaken the port.

Al-Shabaab's commander in Kismayu played down reports of fighting outside the town, but told Reuters both sides were bringing in reinforcements.

Western security experts say Somalia has become a safe haven for militants, including foreign jihadists, who are using the country to hide and plot attacks in the region and beyond.

Since the beginning of 2007, nearly 19,000 civilians have been killed in fighting which has driven 1.5 million from their homes.

Residents said al Shabaab fighters were nearing Hizbul Islam forces in a village outside Baidoa, the home of Somalia's parliament before insurgents seized it in January when lawmakers were meeting in neighbouring Djibouti.

"Hizbul Islam has also prepared its defences and we anticipate battles," local businessman Mohamed Ali told Reuters.

Residents said two Hizbul Islam members were killed by unknown gunmen and another was kidnapped in Kismayu today.

Further north in the central town of Baladwayne, a senior Hizbul Islam official was shot dead on Friday. Residents said they feared rifts between the rebels could widen there, too.

"The gunmen are said to be unknown, but there is suspicion. We are afraid the Kismayu fighting will affect us because the two groups are also here," resident Halima Osman told Reuters.

Meanwhile, the top leadership of Hizbu Islam held an emergency meeting at the outskirts of Mogadishu on Friday to discuss the fighting with the Al-Shabaab forces.

Addressing the media after the meeting, Sheikh Mohamed Moalim Ali, Hizbu Islam's Information Officer, called the clashes that took place in Kismayu on Thursday an act of aggression by Al-Shabaab on loyalists of Hizbu Islam.

He said that the clash was against the spirit of collaboration between the two Islamist groups, adding that such an approach will undermine the solidarity between the Islamist groups in their struggle to uproot the TFG and Amisom.

Elsewhere, followers of Ahlu Sunna wal-Jamea, a moderate Islamist group allied to TFG, have not expressed concern over the clash in Kismayu.

Sheikh Abdullahi Abu-Yusuf Al-Qadi, the spokesman, said that the confrontation between Al-Shabaab fighters and Hizbu Islam militia marks the beginning of the self-destruction by the two radical Islamist groups.

Residents in several villages at the outskirts of Kismayu said the defeated Hizbu Islam forces are regrouping.


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