MOGADISHU (Reuters) - Somalia's moderate Islamist leader Sheikh Sharif Ahmed returned to Mogadishu for the first time in two years Wednesday and a local rights group said fighting had killed 16,210 civilians since then.
Security was tightened in the capital as Sharif, who is in talks with the country's Western-backed interim government, was rushed to a hotel in a northern district of the city surrounded by government troops and Islamist militiamen.
The U.N. special envoy to Somalia, Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, said Sharif's return was "most welcome," while the sight of gunmen who used to shoot at each other now working side by side cheered many of the capital's war-weary residents.
"His enemies have welcomed him as a friend today ... Sharif's presence will minimize the violence, even if it doesn't end it completely," said 44-year-old local Hassan Garaad.
"Islamists wearing turbans and soldiers with uniforms together in one place is a peaceful sign for Mogadishu."
Sharif was one of two main leaders of a sharia courts group driven from the capital by government soldiers and their Ethiopian military allies at the start of last year.
Sharif's return brought a rare ray of hope to some Somalis. But experts say he has little influence over Islamist hardliners who have steadily gained ground to control most of the south, and are camped on the outskirts of Mogadishu.
Exposing splits in the Islamist ranks, the latest battle between two rebel factions killed at least four people days ahead of a planned Ethiopian military withdrawal that could leave the capital open for an insurgent assault. [nLA596009]
Witnesses said hardline al Shabaab fighters clashed with more moderate Islamic Courts militia Tuesday in El Garas, 50 km (30 miles) southeast of the central town of Dusamareb. Both sides fired heavy machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades.
Spokesman from neither side were immediately available.
Addis Ababa has become increasingly frustrated by the financial cost, by feuding between its leaders, and the absence of a serious, international effort to pacify Somalia.
Now Ethiopia says it will pull out its troops by the end of December, leaving a probable power vacuum and more bloodshed.
The Mogadishu-based Elman Peace and Human Rights Organization has been tracking the casualties since Islamist insurgents launched a rebellion against Somalia's interim government and its Ethiopian military allies early in 2007.
Elman said 7,574 civilians had been killed so far in 2008, adding to 8,636 killed the year before. In a report, it said nearly 29,000 people had been wounded over that two-year period.
The Islamists' main weakness is the rift between hardliners such as Shabaab -- which the United States accuses of having links to al Qaeda -- and the more moderate elements such as Sharif's.
Presidential spokesman Hussein Mohamed Mohamud told Reuters Sharif was a peace-loving leader who would change the situation in the country for the better. "He will also tell the truth to Somalis who were confused and disturbed by al Shabaab," he said.
Writing by Daniel Wallis; Editing by Louise Ireland