Islamic insurgents captured a key southern town, witnesses said, but the country's fragile government claimed the defection of a key militia leader as a major victory. The government has been struggling against a major push in the last week by insurgents, apparently aimed at taking over what little of the Somali capital that the government still controls. The government denied militants had captured the agricultural crossroads town of Jowhar on Sunday, but residents reported a street battle that ended with government allies fleeing to the town's outskirts. The fighters who reportedly fled also are Islamists _ reflecting the efforts by Somalia's U.N.-backed government to win over defectors in the chaotic country.
The latest Islamic leader reported to switch sides in Mogadishu, Sheik Yusuf Indahaadde, promised his men would now take up arms for the government, a key ally said.
Pro-government militias control much of central Somalia, but the government itself directly controls only a few blocks of Mogadishu, the capital, and a border town.
Al-Shabab, an Islamic insurgent group that U.S. State Department considers a terrorist organization, with links to al-Qaida, controls much of southern Somalia.
Jowhar, 55 miles (90 kilometers) from Mogadishu, is a key travel route from southern to central Somalia, and its takeover by al-Shabab would be a significant victory.
On Sunday, Jowhar resident Hamdi Da'ud said he saw the bodies of three pro-government militiamen on the city's streets after the insurgents fought a 20-minute battle with pro-government forces. Both sides fired machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades at each other.
"Hundreds of additional fighters poured into the town moments after the pro-government Islamists fled to the outskirts of Jowhar," resident Isse Abdulle told The Associated Press by phone. Information Minister Farhan Ali Mahmud said the Islamic insurgents have not captured Jowhar but he conceded that the fighting was continuing.
Mahmud also told The Associated Press that Indahaadde defected to the government side with all his militiamen late Saturday. Indahaadde had led the militia of a faction of the Islamic Party, a key Islamic insurgent group. The top leader in the faction, Sheik Mohamed Amey, confirmed on Sunday that he, Indahaadee and their militiamen will now fight alongside government forces. The Islamic Party _ the second most powerful insurgent group behind al-Shabab _ has been split over whether to work with Ahmed's government, now that it aims to implement Shariah law. Amey and Indahaadde had been pushing for the party to join the government. President Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed and Indahaadde were leaders of the umbrella Islamic group, the Council of Islamic Courts, that controlled Mogadishu and most of southern Somalia for six months in 2006. Indahaadde was the defense chief, and Ahmed led the group's executive committee.
Ethiopia deployed troops to support Somalia's government in December 2006 and ousted the Islamic group, but the troops withdrew in January under an intricate peace deal mediated by the United Nations.
Ahmed was elected president under the deal.
This past week, insurgents launched fierce attacks in Mogadishu, the worst fighting there in weeks. More than 100 civilians were killed and at least 30,000 people fled their homes. There has been concern that the government may collapse if the fighting in Mogadishu persists.
There has been a lull in fighting since Friday, but observers fear that if the insurgents seize Mogadishu, they will gain a safe haven in the Horn of Africa.
Ahmed's government only directly controls a few blocks of Mogadishu and the border town of El Berde. But Ahmed has allies among the militias that control much of central Somalia and pockets of the south.
Al-Shabab controls much of southern Somalia.
Northern Somalia is run by two autonomous governments that are opposed to the Islamists, but are not allied with Ahmed's government.
Somalia has not had an effective government since warlords overthrew longtime dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991. The warlords then turned on each other, plunging the African nation into anarchy and chaos. The lawlessness has also allowed piracy to thrive off Somalia's coast.