By Abdi Sheikh and Abdi Guled
MOGADISHU, March 20 (Reuters) - Somalia’s hardline al Shabaab insurgents have beheaded two sheikhs from a rival Islamist movement, a spokesman for the Ahlu Sunna Waljamaca group said on Friday.
The killings happened on Thursday, the same day al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden urged Somalis in an audio tape to topple the new president of the lawless Horn of Africa nation.
Al Shabaab, which Washington accuses of having close ties to al Qaeda, has been battling rival Islamists from the Ahlu Sunna Waljamaca movement for control of central regions.
An Ahlu Sunna spokesman said the two religious leaders had been injured by stray bullets during the clashes. He said they were later captured by al Shabaab gunmen as they were being driven to hospital in the capital.
"Elders told al Shabaab that the sheikhs were not fighters, but they turned a deaf ear and beheaded them," Sheikh Abdullahi Sheikh Abu Yusuf, the spokesman, told Reuters.
Yusuf said the killings took place in Balad town, 30 km (19 miles) north of Mogadishu. He also accused al Shabaab militants of decapitating three elderly women last weekend. Al Shabaab officials could not immediately be reached for comment.
On Thursday, bin Laden urged Somalis to overthrow their new president, Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, a moderate Islamist elected this year in the 15th attempt to form a central government.
But experts say bin Laden’s message is unlikely to be heeded: al Qaeda’s violent brand of militancy repels ordinary people and real hope now exists among many Somalis that Ahmed can end 18 years of chaos. [ID:nLJ970165]
Violence in Somalia has killed more than 16,000 civilians since the start of 2007, uprooted more than a million and left about a third of the population depending on food aid.
In a statement posted on their website, www.kataaib.infor, on Friday, al Shabaab welcomed bin Laden’s support and again denounced Ahmed as the leader of a "non-Muslim" government.
"May Allah bless and protect Sheikh Osama," it said. (Writing by Daniel Wallis; Editing by Katie Nguyen)