At least 17 people were killed in the Somali capital Mogadishu during Tuesday clashes, as Islamist leader Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys publicly declared his support for the merger of Al Shabaab and Hizbul Islam insurgent factions, Radio Garowe reports.
The fighting started overnight Monday and continued into Tuesday, with Somali government forces and allied African peacekeepers (AMISOM) repelling attacks by Al Shabaab insurgents.
Most of the violence was concentrated around Mogadishu's Hodan, Bondhere and Abdiaziz districts. Medical workers reported more than 32 wounded persons were admitted to local hospitals.
Witnesses said 8 civilians were killed in two separate incidents when an artillery shell hit residential areas in Kaaraan and Howlwadaag, which are districts outside of Tuesday's fighting zone.
A businessman in Bakara Market, a notorious insurgent stronghold since early 2007, confidentially told Garowe Online that AMISOM peacekeepers had moved "too close" to the market.
"There is plenty of fear that the fighting will spread into Bakara Market," said the business source who declined to be named for security reasons.
Al Shabaab-Hizbul Islam merger
Mogadishu has been wracked by insurgent violence since early 2007, when Islamist fighters went underground and spearheaded a bloody insurgency to overthrow the country's internationally recognized but weak Transitional Federal Government (TFG).
In Feb. 2009, a new Islamist faction was established under the leadership of Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, who formed the Hizbul Islam insurgent group with the goal of toppling the TFG and installing an Islamist regime in Mogadishu.
On Tuesday, Sheikh Aweys appeared at a public rally with Al Shabaab leaders including Sheikh Fuad Shongole and Sheikh Ali Dheere, Al Shabaab's propaganda chief and spokesman, respectively.
The event was held in Afgoye, a small farming town 30km south of Mogadishu and formerly a major base for Hizbul Islam faction.
Sheikh Aweys said: "I am pleased to witness the unity of Al Shabaab and Hizbul Islam. I urge all Islamist fighters and all Muslims to join the war."
He called on AMISOM troop-contributing countries, namely Uganda and Burundi, to "pull out your troops or they will return to you dead."
Sheikh Shongole, who is Al Shabaab's third-in-command and chief of propaganda, bragged that he survived a mosque last May to "witness to the unity of the Mujahideen [holy warrior] in Somalia."
It is a major change of fortune for Sheikh Aweys, who led all Somali Islamists under the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) umbrella in 2006. The ICU militia seized Mogadishu in June 2006, but were ousted by the Ethiopian army's invasion six months later.
The ICU splintered into three factions: Al Shabaab; Hizbul Islam, led by Sheikh Aweys; and the Alliance for the Re-liberation of Somalia (ARS), led by Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, who became TFG President in Jan. 2009.
Insiders say Sheikh Aweys, who was the leader of all ICU splinter groups in 2006, has now surrendered his seniority and leadership over to junior officers within the former ICU group, but who are now top leaders in Al Shabaab group.
Those who know Sheikh Aweys describe him as a man obssessed with becoming the President of Somalia one day, but his aspiration faces many obstacles not the least of which is that he is on the U.S. terrorism watch-list.
Somali insurgents have remained unable to over-power the 8,000-strong AMISOM peacekeeping force, which guards the port, airport and presidential compound.
Upwards of 21,000 have been killed in the Somali insurgency since early 2007, with more than 1million people displaced.