NAIROBI (Reuters) - Fighting between Somali insurgents and pro-government troops killed at least 45 people and wounded 30 others in separates battles in the south of the country Thursday, witnesses said.
Western security agencies say Somalia, which has been torn by civil war for the past 18 years, has become a haven for militants plotting attacks in the Horn of Africa and beyond.
Militiamen supporting President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed’s fragile administration attacked al Shabaab insurgents in the Bula Burde in the southern Hiran region and the ensuing fight killed at least 33 and wounded 22 others.
“I have counted 20 dead bodies around the bridge where the two groups have been fighting since morning,” local elder Farah Ali told Reuters by phone.
Another resident said 13 civilians were also killed.
In a separate battle, al Shabaab fighters seized back the southern Bulahawa town from pro-government militiamen after fighting that killed at least 12 people, witnesses said.
Earlier this week, militiamen backing Ahmed’s government chased al Shabaab fighters out of Bulahawa without any fire.
Thursday, al Shabaab returned with reinforcements.
Local nurse Abdiraxman Ali said 12 people were killed and eight wounded: “The dead are from both sides, and civilians.”
The United States accuses al Shabaab of being al Qaeda’s proxy in the chaotic nation.
Al Shabaab spokesman in Bulahawa, Sheikh Osman, told Reuters the group had retaken control.
“We have defeated the Ethiopian-backed militia,” he said.
Meanwhile another rebel group, Hizbul Islam, retook control of Luuq town, which is also in Gedo region. They had abandoned it Wednesday to a pro-government militia.
The international community is trying to bolster Ahmed’s U.N.-backed government, which controls only parts of the central region and small pockets of the coastal capital Mogadishu.
The Islamist rebels say Ethiopian soldiers are fighting alongside the pro-government militiamen, but a senior official in Addis Ababa denied that repeatedly.
Wednesday, Somali lawmakers declared a state of emergency while the government battles the rebels. The move means Ahmed can make major decisions without having to consult parliament.
Violence in Somalia has killed more than 18,000 civilians since the start of 2007 and uprooted another 1 million.
An independent group of Somali elders led by former president Abdiqassim Salad Hassan is attempting to broker a ceasefire deal between the warring parties.
“This is a purely Somali initiative ... the opposition groups have not yet accepted a ceasefire, but we are hopeful they will do,” Hassan, who was Somalia’s president between 2001 and 2004, told Reuters from Cairo.
“In the end, we will come up with our recommendation of who is an obstacle to peace in Somalia, and fight against them together with our people.”
Additional reporting by Abdiaziz Hassan, Ibrahim Mohamed, and Tsegaye Tadesse in Addis Ababa; Writing by Daniel Wallis