Al-Qaeda has named a ruthless Islamist commander as its leader in Mogadishu, the Somali government said on Thursday, deepening fears of a wider insurgency in the war-fatigued African nation.
Deputy Defence Minister Salad Ali Jelle said Al-Qaeda had named Aden Hashi Ayro as its leader in the Somali capital, where at least 14 people including six soldiers were killed in clashes on Wednesday.
The soldiers were dragged through the streets and their bodies set alight.
"After Somali terrorists made consultations with Al-Qaeda, Ayro was named as chief of Al-Qaeda in Mogadishu," Jelle told a press conference here.
"They (Islamists) are killing people and intellectuals who are supporting the government," he added.
Although Jelle did not say when and where the consultations took place, Western intelligence believes that there are numerous Al-Qaeda operatives hiding with Somali Islamists.
Jelle said Ayro led the insurgents in the recent fighting in Mogadishu, which has seen a dramatic escalation since January when Ethiopian-Somali troops drove out an Islamist movement from much of southern and central Somalia.
"The government is fighting terrorists in Mogadishu. The government strongholds were attacked by the remnants of the Islamic courts led by Aden Hashi Ayro," Jelle added.
Officials say Ayro survived US airstrikes in southern Somalia in January which targeted at least three other extremists blamed for two terrorism attacks in east Africa in 1998 and 2002.
Early this month, an Islamist website released an audio-taped message attributed to Ayro, who called on Somalis to attack and kill Ethiopian troops deployed in Somalia.
Western intelligence sources have warned that Somalia risks becoming a terrorist haven if efforts to empower the government fail in the face of fierce opposition from powerful clans.
Some 1,500 Ugandan troops are now in Somalia as part of a proposed 8,000-strong African Union force aiming to help government troops regain control and Ethiopian forces to leave.