Ten people were killed on Saturday in a fight between the pro-government Ahlu Sunna Waljamaca group and hardline Islamist rebels in central Somalia, witnesses on both sides said. The fight was the first since Dec. 2008 when Ahlu Sunna, made up of Sufis, took control of Dusamareb town from the Al Shabaab militia after battles in which dozens of people were killed.
Residents said that heavily armed Al Shabaab fighters attacked Dusamareb, 560 km (350 miles) north of Mogadishu, in the early hours of the morning, pounding the eastern side of the town with mortars and prompting the Ahlu Sunna to return machine gun fire.
"Most of the residents fled into the jungle. This fighting will obviously spread to other central towns," elder Osman Aden told Reuters. "I saw 10 dead people lying in the villages as I fled." Somalia has had no effective central government for 19 years and the West's efforts to install one have been undermined by the insurgency led by Al Shabaab, which Washington views as Al Qaeda's proxy in the region.
Western security agencies say Somalia's appeal as a safe haven for militants, including foreign jihadists who are using it to plot attacks in the region and beyond, has grown over the years. A senior al Shabaab official said on Friday the group was ready to send reinforcements to Yemen, should the United States carry out strikes against targets there.
Residents said the rebel group al Shabaab has been forcibly recruiting youths in readiness for an attack against government and moderate Islamists in central Somalia. An Ahlu Sunna spokesman said they had repulsed al Shabaab and killed several of their fighters who attacked Dusamareb.
"Al Shabaab attacked us this morning but we killed many of them and took their weapons. " sheikh Abdullahi sheikh Abu Yusuf told Reuters. "We drove them out of the town and we shall redouble our war on al Shabaab. We shall soon reach new towns from where these pseudo Muslims attacked us."
His al Shabaab counterpart denied the claim. "We have captured Dusamareb and killed many Sufis. We also took four battle wagons from them," Sheikh Ali Mohamud Rage, al Shabaab's spokesman, told Reuters by phone from Mogadishu. The Islamists launched their insurgency at the start of 2007 to drive out Ethiopian troops propping up the Western-backed government in the Horn of Africa nation.
Ethiopians left at the start of 2009 but the conflict lived on between the Islamists and President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed's troops who control little more than a few streets of the battle-scarred capital. Elman, a local human rights group, has said violence in Somalia has killed 21,862 people and displaced many more since the start of the insurgency.