MOGADISHU (Reuters) - Somalia’s two main insurgent groups clashed on Saturday near the southern port of Kismayu and residents said al Shabaab and Hizbul Islam were squaring up for battles elsewhere in the Horn of Africa country.
The rebel groups fought for control of the lucrative port and main airport in southern Somalia this week. Al Shabaab won the battle, in which a local rights group said at least 28 civilians and an unknown number of combatants were killed.
Until then, the two influential insurgent groups, which control much of southern and central Somalia, had been allies in their fight against the U.N.-backed administration that is chiefly confined to the capital, Mogadishu.
Western donors have long hoped hardliners in al Shabaab, which Washington says is al Qaeda’s proxy, could be isolated by a deal between more moderate Hizbul leaders and the government.
President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed has made little headway in wooing his former Islamist comrades in Hizbul Islam but fighting between the insurgents may at least give the government and African Union peacekeepers some breathing space.
Hizbul Islam and residents said the clashes late on Friday and early on Saturday were in two villages — one 30 km (19 miles) and the other 60 km from Kismayu.
“After we left Kismayu, al Shabaab followed us and we fought and drove them back yesterday. They attacked us again this morning and fighting is going on in these villages,” Ismail Adow, Hizbul Islam’s spokesman told Reuters.
Hizbul Islam commander Mohamed Adan said his forces were chasing al Shabaab back to Kismayu and they would not stop fighting until they had retaken the port.
Al Shabaab’s commander in Kismayu played down reports of fighting outside the town, but told Reuters both sides were bringing in reinforcements.
Western security experts say Somalia has become a safe haven for militants, including foreign jihadists, who are using the country to hide and plot attacks in the region and beyond.
Since the beginning of 2007, nearly 19,000 civilians have been killed in fighting which has driven 1.5 million from their homes.
Residents said al Shabaab fighters were nearing Hizbul Islam forces in a village outside Baidoa, the home of Somalia’s parliament before insurgents seized it in January when lawmakers were meeting in neighboring Djibouti.
“Hizbul Islam has also prepared its defenses and we anticipate battles,” local businessman Mohamed Ali told Reuters.
Residents said two Hizbul Islam members were killed by unknown gunmen and another was kidnapped in Kismayu on Saturday.
Further north in the central town of Baladwayne, a senior Hizbul Islam official was shot dead on Friday. Residents said they feared rifts between the rebels could widen there, too.
“The gunmen are said to be unknown, but there is suspicion. We are afraid the Kismayu fighting will affect us because the two groups are also here,” resident Halima Osman told Reuters.