Heavy fighting broke out on Thursday between rival Islamist factions in the Somali port of Kismayo, shattering a key alliance in the insurgency against the Western-backed government.
Hundreds of families fled the key southern port as the al-Qaeda-inspired al-Shabaab and Hezb al-Islam battled for control.
“The fighting is very intense, al-Shabaab launched an offensive on Hezb al-Islam positions at dawn,” resident Abdi Baruud said from Kismayo.
The city, about 300km south of Mogadishu, was wrested from government forces in August and had been an Islamist bastion ever since but relations between the two groups soured in recent weeks.
The two factions had agreed to share power in Kismayo, with each governing for six months alternatively, but clan politics seeped in and the rotation failed when al-Shabaab refused to relinquish the administration.
Firmly under Islamist control for more than year, Kismayo had been relatively quiet until Thursday.
“We were attacked by our brothers with no reason,” local Hezb al-Islam spokesperson Sheikh Ismail Haji Adow told reporters.
“They [al-Shabaab] launched their offensive on several fronts very early this morning. The fighting is very intense but we are holding up,” he said.
“Hundreds of families are fleeing the city,” he added.
As both sides prepared for combat on Wednesday, many residents had already left the city centre to seek refuge on the outskirts.
Kismayo had attracted many Somalis who had fled the capital, Mogadishu, which has been plagued by almost uninterrupted violence over the past three years.
It was not immediately clear what impact the rupture in the country’s main Islamist alliance would have on the broad military offensive the two insurgent groups launched against the government on May 7.
For almost five months, the two armed factions have led a bruising campaign to oust government fighters from key towns and topple President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed.
Al-Shabaab are a hard-line organisation that recently pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda supremo Osama bin Laden and spearheaded the resistance against Ethiopia’s two-year occupation that ended in January.
Hezb al-Islam is a more political organisation headed by Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, a former ally of Sharif’s in the Islamic Courts Union.
Many of the combatants fighting under the Hezb al-Islam banner in Kismayo are members of Ras Komboni, a group founded by local Islamist leader Sheikh Hassan Turki. — AFP