Moderate Islamists seize Somali town from Shabaab

Thu Jan 29, 2009 4:11am EST

(Recasts with town taken)

By Abdi Sheikh

MOGADISHU, Jan 29 (Reuters) - A moderate Sunni group captured a central trading town from the hardline al Shabaab group on Thursday in renewed fighting between Islamist factions in Somalia while the world pushes a peace process outside.

Fighters from government-allied Ahla Sunna Waljamaca attacked Dusamareb in the morning, ousting their rivals after several hours of gunfire and mortar exchanges, witnesses said.

"Dusamareb is now in our hands and we are still chasing Al Shabaab in the outskirts of town," Ahla Sunna spokesman Sheikh Abdullahi Sheikh Abu Yusuf told Reuters.

The latest flare-up in weeks of clashes between the groups came as Somalia's parliament prepared to elect a new national president in Djibouti on Friday after voting to expand its numbers to include 200 moderate Islamist opponents.

The United Nations and other international players hope those steps, being taken in neighbouring Djibouti due to insecurity at home, will pave the way for a unity government and peace for the first time in 18 years for Somalia.

But Al Shabaab insurgents have vowed to fight on, and this week overran Baidoa, the seat of parliament, after Ethiopian troops who had been supporting the government ended a more than two-year intervention in Somalia.

That leaves the government's physical control restricted to just some areas of Mogadishu, where they are being helped by a 3,500-strong African Union peacekeeping force.

The capture of Dusamareb was a blow to Al Shabaab, which wants to take advantage of the departure of Ethiopian troops to take over south and central Somalia.

Its militant implementation of sharia law is unpopular, however, among many of Somalia's traditionally moderate Muslims.

Terrified residents of Dusamareb fled to nearby woods during Thursday's fighting. "Mortars are now falling in the woods where we are as Al Shabaab escapes towards our side," Habiba Maalim told Reuters from the scene.

Ahla Sunna spokesman Yusuf accused Al Shabaab of a campaign of terror including closing schools, rounding up suspected opponents, and desecrating graves.

"Al Shabaab has taken more than 20 people out of their homes. We cannot tolerate their slaughters. We want to reopen our Koranic schools and save our people and graves from the omnivorous Al Shabaab," he said.

Al Shabaab's spokesman could not be immediately reached.

The group still controls large swathes of south Somalia, and has generally been able to bring security to those areas.

But Somalis have chafed at practices like a ban on watching foreign films, public executions and other punishments in line with sharia law. (Writing by Andrew Cawthorne)




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