At least 13 people were killed on Sunday as Islamist gunmen stormed a new town in central Somalia, seizing it from a warlord allied with the weak government after fierce fighting, witnesses said.
A day after the government rejected a new peace initiative aimed at averting all-out war, the powerful Somali Islamist movement pushed to their furthest north, taking the town of Bandiradley in the central Mudug region, they said.
The seizure, certain to exacerbate already sky-high tensions with the government, brings the Islamists to less than 100 kilometers (60 miles) of the semi-autonomous enclave of Puntland, which has vowed to resist their advance.
"We have taken control of Bandiradley after heavy fighting," said Mohamed Mohamud Jama, the Islamist spokesman in Mudug region, where the town, about 700 kilometers (440 miles) north of Mogadishu.
"We have defeated them and we are still advancing," he said by phone from Bandiradley, where residents said at least 13 fighters were killed, five Islamists and eight loyal to ex-Mogadishu warlord Abdi Hassan Awale Qeybdiid.
"All of the dead are to buried today in Bandiradley, the process has started already," clan elder Ahmed Hassan said.
The toll from the fighting was confirmed by two Bandiradley residents, Mohamed Abdulahi and Ali Idris, who added that Qeybdiid's men had lost seven machine gun-mounted pick-ups and two aging tanks in the battle.
They said the Islamists had lost three gun-mounted pick-ups in the bloody clash that began early on Sunday.
A commander for Qeybdiid's forces allowed that they had retreated, but maintained it was tactical and did not amount to a defeat.
"They attacked our bases around Bandiradley airfield and we had retreated a bit from the zone although we did not lose the fight," commanders Said Dhegoweyne.
"There are a lot of casualties both sides but I cannot confirm the toll, but we lost some of our men in the fighting," he said.
Qeybdid, a former member of a US-backed warlord alliance ousted from Mogadishu by the Islamists in June, is backed of the interim government, Puntland's regional adminsitration and neighbouring Ethiopia.