By Ibrahim Mohamed
MOGADISHU (Reuters) – Rival Islamist rebels battled in southern Somalia’s Kismayu port Thursday, killing at least 20 people and the fighting threatened to spread to other parts of the failed Horn of Africa state.
Witnesses said al Shabaab gunmen and their one-time allies from Hizbul Islam attacked each other at dawn, and that by mid-afternoon al Shabaab appeared to control most areas.
Sporadic shooting continued, however, and many residents remained desperate to join the hundreds who have already fled.
Maryam Maalin, a single mother-of-four, told Reuters the fighting outside her house made it impossible to escape.
“They are firing in front of my home. We have nothing to eat and we are scared for our lives. If I could get a chance to run, I would take my young kids and go,” she said by telephone.
The confrontation had been brewing for days, and Hizbul Islam leaders had threatened to fight al Shabaab “everywhere” in Somalia if clashes began at the rebel-held port, which is a lucrative source of taxes and other income.
Security analysts say Somalia has become a safe haven for militants, including foreign jihadists, and Washington says al Shabaab is al Qaeda’s proxy in the country.
Relations between al Shabaab and Hizbul Islam degenerated last week after al Shabaab named its own council to run Kismayu, excluding all Hizbul members. Until then, the two groups had run the port in an uneasy coalition.
Western donors have long hoped hardliners in al Shabaab could be isolated by a deal between more moderate Hizbul leaders and the fragile U.N.-backed administration that could bring some stability to Somalia after nearly two decades of anarchy.
CLASHES TO SPREAD?
President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed has so far failed to lure top Hizbul Islam figures to his side, but a feud between the two rebel groups could give his government some breathing space.
Member of parliament Barre Hiire said the government was relieved to see the insurgents fighting each other for once.
“Of course we are sorry about any civilian casualties. But they are the ones who have been attacking us. We are very happy with what is happening in Kismayu,” he told Reuters.
Fighting in Somalia has killed nearly 19,000 civilians since the start of 2007 and driven 1.5 million from their homes.
The battles between al Shabaab and Hizbul Islam in the southern port raised the possibility of clashes between their gunmen in Mogadishu, where they have fought together against Ahmed’s administration and African Union peacekeepers.
Hassan Hundubey, a London-based independent Somali analyst, said that would depend on how close the ties were between Hizbul Islam fighters in Kismayu and their counterparts in the capital. He said the clashes were mostly over money, not ideology.
“It is mostly economic. They are fighting for control of the resources from the port and airport … they are using religion as cover for several interests: tribal, economic and politics.”
(Additional reporting by Sahra Abdi and Abdiaziz Hassan in Nairobi and Abdi Sheikh in Mogadishu; Writing by Daniel Wallis; Editing by Charles Dick)