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Somali rebel boss Aweys may be dead

MOGADISHU (Reuters) - A Somali Islamist rebel leader on U.S. and U.N. terrorism lists is seriously injured from fighting between rival Islamist groups and may be dead, a family member and a militia opposed to him said on Sunday.

Somali opposition leader Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, head of the Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia (ARS), smiles during an interview with Reuters in Mogadishu, May 14, 2009. REUTERS/Abdiaziz Hassan

Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys’ own insurgent movement, Hizbul Islam, denied the reports of his death as “propaganda.”

If true, Aweys’ death would be a major blow to the Islamist rebels and a boost for President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed’s Western-backed government, which had tried unsuccessfully to broker peace talks with the 62-year-old cleric.

Aweys, whom western security services say is close to al Qaeda, is a father figure to the insurgents in Somalia, where he has headed various Islamist groups since the 1990s.

“We understand that Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys was brought yesterday to his brother’s house,” a family member, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters.

“We were denied access but confirmed there were doctors in the area ... The mood looks like he is dead. The whole area is surrounded by gunmen and there is no access,” he added, of the house close to Mogadishu’s football stadium.

The government-allied moderate Islamist militia Ahla Sunna Waljamaca said its fighters shot Aweys during battles in Wabho town on Friday, and that he died of wounds later.

There were also rumours among militia fighters that another rebel leader, Sheikh Hassan Abdullah Hersi al-Turki, was among the 123 combatants who died in the fighting around Wabho.

An Islamist insurgency since early 2007, the latest cycle in 19 years of conflict in the Horn of Africa nation, has killed around 18,000 civilians and thousands more fighters.

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It has also drawn foreign jihadists into Somalia, enabled piracy to flourish offshore and unsettled the whole of East Africa, with neighbours Kenya and Ethiopia on high alert.

THREE DIE IN BOMB

In Mogadishu, where hardline Islamist insurgents al Shabaab have been battling the government’s security forces, three people died on Sunday when a remote control mine meant for a police car struck another vehicle.

“The police car was driving at high speed and the bomb missed it and struck a civilian car which was behind the police car,” witness Abdullahi Farah Nor told Reuters.

Gunmen in the capital also shot and killed Mukhtar Mohamed Hirabe, a director of privately-owned radio station Shabelle, and injured a colleague. “They shot the director in the head and he died on the spot,” a witness said.

Hirabe, 48, was the fifth journalist murdered this year in Somalia, one of the most dangerous places in the world for reporters to operate. Colleagues suspected that a broadcast on Aweys’ battle injuries may have prompted the attack.

“God knows who attacked us, but we suspect the news we aired this morning,” said Ahmed Omar Tajir, a reporter who suffered a gunshot wound to the stomach when Hirabe was killed.

Somali president Ahmed, in an interview published on Sunday in Italy’s Il Sole 24 Ore newspaper, said al Qaeda was targeting Somalia as a strategic base for operations.

“Today there are al Qaeda cells in the country. So this isn’t Somalia’s problem but the world’s,” he said.

“Al Qaeda is looking at Somalia as a strategic post, different from Afghanistan, to create its network. Somalia has become their priority. We have a very long coast.”

The president said his government needed another six to eight months to build a security force capable of beating rebel groups al Shabaab and Hizbul Islam. “We want dialogue but they oppose it,” he added, saying Eritrea was backing Hizbul Islam, while al Shabaab was linked to al Qaeda.

Underlining the consequences at sea of the lawlessness onshore, the French navy handed four injured pirates over to authorities in the north Somali region of Puntland for trial. The four were originally captured by an Indian warship.

Additional reporting by Mohamed Ahmed and Abdi Guled in Mogadishu, Abdiqani Hassan in Bosasso, Phil Stewart in Rome

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