26 May 2009

Somalia: 7 Killed in Violence, Aweys Crowned Hizbul Islam Chief

At least seven people were killed Tuesday in the Somali capital Mogadishu after suspected insurgents targeted the presidential palace and Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys was crowned the new leader of a rebel outfit, Radio Garowe reports.

The dead victims included two government soldiers and five civilians who were killed when insurgent mortars missed their mark and hit homes near the Villa Somalia presidential compound.

"At least six mortars hit the area around the former theatre," said a witness referring to Mogadishu's pre-war theatre complex near Villa Somalia.

Seven people including insurgents were wounded when government forces responded with artillery fire, witnesses said.

Separately, heavy fighting raged in Mahaday district in Middle Shabelle region.

There were no reliable reports of casualties, but the fighting was between the pro-government Islamic Courts Union (ICU) militia and Al Shabaab hardliners, local reports said.

Sheikh Dahir Addow Alasow, the ICU governor of Middle Shabelle who fled Jowhar earlier this month, told Mogadishu radio stations that the ICU militias "achieved success" in battles against Al Shabaab. He declined to mention any casualties.

However, the Al Shabaab governor of Middle Shabelle, Sheikh Abdirahman Hassan Hussein, claimed that five ICU fighters were killed and one ICU battlewagon was captured by Al Shabaab during the fighting in Mahaday.

His claim could not be independently verified.

New rebel chief

Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, who is on the U.S. and U.N. terror lists, has been crowned the new leader of Hizbul Islam rebel faction.

The former head of Hizbul Islam, Dr. Omar Iman, formally transferred authority over to Sheikh Aweys at a ceremony held Tuesday in Mogadishu.

Dr. Iman did not provide details as to why he was stepping down, but told the gathering that there was "no pressure" on him to step down.

Sheikh Aweys said he was happy to assume leadership of Hizbul Islam, which was created in January and consists of four rebel factions: Eritrea-based ICU faction, Ras Kamboni Brigade, Anole and Jabhatul Islamiya.

"It is a happy event that Sheikh Omar Iman willingly and courageously transferred authority and I accept," said Sheikh Aweys, who did not give a policy speech at the crowning ceremony.

An Islamist hardliner for years, Sheikh Aweys was the co-leader of the ICU with current Somali President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed in 2006 when the ICU took over Mogadishu from warlords.

The two former allies are now sworn enemies and Sheikh Aweys has vowed to overthrow Sheikh Sharif's U.N.-backed interim government, which he accuses of being a puppet of the West.

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