MOGADISHU (Reuters) - Militias allied to the Somali government recaptured a southern port from Islamists on Tuesday, as the death toll from an upsurge of fighting in recent days rose to nearly 100, witnesses said.
The militias recaptured Guda, which had been taken by the Islamists’ militant al Shabaab wing on Monday, after overnight fighting that brought fatalities on both sides.
“The town is under our control. On both sides, five died and eight were wounded,” said militiaman Abdisalan Hassan Bootan.
In Mogadishu, eight more corpses were found where Ethiopian troops backing the Somali government clashed with Islamist insurgents over the weekend.
And in Baidoa town, the seat of Somalia’s parliament, masked gunmen shot dead a government intelligence officer.
That took the total death toll in violence since the weekend to 99, according to witnesses and a local rights group.
Branded terrorists by Washington, al Shabaab has led an Iraq-style insurgency against the government and its Ethiopian allies since early 2007.
The insurgency began when the Islamic Courts Union, of which Al Shabaab was a part, lost control of Mogadishu.
Heavily-armed Shabaab fighters took Berdale town, near Baidoa in central Somalia, on Monday, and immediately imposed sharia law, residents said. The Islamists forced local authorities to disarm, and there were no casualties.
“They are patrolling in the town carrying heavy machineguns and rockets on their shoulders,” local businessman Ali Madey Isak told Reuters. “They have told people not to smoke in public, chew (the narcotic leaf) khat, or watch movies.”
The Islamists have in recent months launched an increasing number of hit-and-run raids on small towns — seizing control only to melt away before reinforcements arrive. The attacks seem to be a show of strength intended to stretch the government and Ethiopian troops, rather than a bid to win and hold territory.
The recent violence has swelled Somalia’s internal refugee population of about 1 million. Aid workers say Somalia is one of the world’s worst, yet most neglected, humanitarian crises.
The United Nations is trying to broker peace talks between the warring Somali factions in neighboring Djibouti on May 10. The Horn of Africa nation has been without central rule and in near-permanent conflict since the 1991 ouster of a dictator.
But the new violence has left talks looking unlikely.
A spokesman for the Islamic Courts, Sheikh Ibrahim Suley, said the real death toll from the weekend violence in Mogadishu was much higher, and talks with the government had consequently been postponed indefinitely.
“The Ethiopians killed around 200 people and kidnapped 160 others including 41 Koranic students ... We will continue fighting the Ethiopians and those under the protection of their tanks. We call on them to repent,” Suley told Reuters.
“It is never possible to hold talks with those who killed our people. We had dialogue with the U.N. over the withdrawal of Ethiopian troops and now we decided to put that on hold.”
The new fighting comes as the worst drought in more than a decade grips most of Somalia, the U.N. office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said on Tuesday.
“If the drought persists in addition to the fighting, we will be confronted with the same situation in 1991-92 when drought and civil strife claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of Somalis,” Elisabeth Byrs of OCHA said in Geneva.
(Additional reporting by Abdi Mohamed in Mogadishu, Sahra Abdi in Kismayu, Mohamed Ahmed in Baidoa, and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by Guled Mohamed; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Catherine Evans)
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