17 May 2009

Somalia: Fighting Among Islamists Spreads, Al Shabaab Take Jowhar

Rival Islamist militias continued to battle over control of territory in central and southern Somalia Sunday, as Al Shabaab hardliners captured the key town of Jowhar, Radio Garowe reports.

Uneasy calm returned to the central Hiran region after consecutive days of battles between pro-government Islamic Courts Union (ICU) fighters and Al Shabaab militants.

At least 12 civilians wounded during the recent clashes in Mahas district were transported to Beletwein, the provincial capital of Hiran.

The wounded victims were being treated at Beletwein General Hospital, which is run by the MSF-Swiss aid agency, our correspondent reports.

Various sources have confirmed the death toll from Mahas fighting to have reached 17, with emerging reports indicating that the casualties could increase since more wounded civilians are traveling by road towards Beletwein.

Separately, seven wounded civilians from El Bur district were transported to Istarlin Hospital in Guri El town in the central Galgadud region. The victims were wounded during armed clashes between Al Shabaab and the pro-government Ahlu Sunnah Wal Jamee'a militia, where more than 16 people were killed. READ: 16 killed in central Somalia clashes among Islamist rivals

Locals said there is fear of fighting in both Hiran and Galgadud regions, as rival Islamists received armed reinforcements and the warring factions were still heavily concentrated in the conflict zones.

Jowar falls

At least three ICU fighters were killed and four other people wounded after fighting erupted in Jowhar, capital of Middle Shabelle region.

"The situation returned to calm and residents were on the streets to witness the change," said a Jowhar local, who added that businesses remained shut all day Sunday.

The administration building and the central police station in Jowhar were under the control of Al Shabaab fighters, who were dispatched from a base in Bal'ad, a district located between Jowhar and the capital, Mogadishu.

Speaking on Mogadishu radio, Al Shabaab commanders said their forces were en route to the central regions to reinforce fighters in Hiran and Galgadud when they came under attack in Jowhar.

The pro-government ICU faction that previously controlled Jowhar reportedly fled out of the town and towards the countryside.

Somali government officials declined to comment on the Al Shabaab takeover of Jowhar, a key town that lies 90km north of Mogadishu and is the gateway to central Somalia.

Currently, Al Shabaab and allied groups like Hizbul Islam control most of Mogadishu, dominate the regions of Lower Jubba, Middle Jubba, Lower Shabelle, Gedo, Bay, Bakool, and are fighting for control in Middle Shabelle, Hiran and Galgadud regions.

Somalia's new UN-backed government, led by President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, controls very little territory in Mogadishu and is fast loosing control of strongholds in the central regions.

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