KISMAYU, Somalia (Reuters) - Islamist rebels seized control of this strategic port in southern Somalia on Friday after the worst fighting in the area for months killed 70 people, residents said.
The loss of Kismayu to the al-Shabaab insurgents was another blow for the interim government, which signed a peace deal with some opposition figures this week that has only seemed to stoke violence racking the Horn of Africa nation.
Artillery and gun battles between the rebels and a pro-government clan militia broke out around the port on Wednesday.
“Kismayu is under our control. We overpowered them and concluded the fighting,” Sheikh Mukhtar Robow, the al-Shabaab spokesman, told Reuters by telephone.
“We’re still chasing those fighters who ran away. The situation is calm and we urge the people to stay peaceful.”
Local rights activists and residents said 70 people died in three days of clashes. Scores were wounded.
Since the start of last year, al-Shabaab rebels have been waging an Iraq-style insurgency of mortar attacks, roadside bombings and assassinations, targeting the fragile interim administration and its Ethiopian military allies.
This year, Washington officially listed al-Shabaab as a terrorist organization with close ties to al Qaeda.
The United States sees Somalia as a training ground for extremists and says radical Islamist leaders have made much of it a safe haven for high level suspects, including the bombers of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania a decade ago.
Violence in Somalia has killed more than 8,000 civilians and uprooted 1 million since the beginning of 2007, when government forces backed by Ethiopian tanks and warplanes drove a sharia courts group out of the capital Mogadishu.
The plight of displaced families has been compounded by drought, record food prices and inflation, triggering a crisis that aid workers say may be the worst in Africa.
United Nations-led negotiations in Djibouti have tried to quell the bloodshed. On Monday, the talks produced a tentative peace agreement between President Abduallahi Yusuf’s government and some opposition figures.
But the deal had already been rejected by al-Shabaab commanders and other opposition hardliners.
Kismayu, near the Kenyan border and close to an Islamist stronghold on the coast at Ras Kamboni, is home to about 700,000 people. It had been relatively peaceful in recent months compared with bombed-out Mogadishu, which was also the scene of fierce fighting on Thursday.
As usual in Somalia, civilians in the port city bore the brunt of the latest clashes.
The manager of Kismayu general hospital, Abdi Ahmed Sugule, said there was just one doctor and a handful of nurses on duty.
“We are also running short of drugs and more people are on the way to hospital,” he said.
Additional reporting by Abdi Sheikh and Ibrahim Mohamed in Mogadishu; Writing by Daniel Wallis; editing by Robert Hart