Mogadishu: Fighting between rival Islamist factions over control of a key Somali port city killed at least five people on Thursday, residents and medical staff said, in the first concrete sign of a major split in the Islamist alliance threatening the fragile UN-backed government.
The fighting between the al-Shabab militia and members of the Islamic Party broke out early Thursday morning in five areas of Kismayo, a port city around 310 miles (500 kilometres) south of the capital of Mogadishu, resident Aden Jibral said. Kismayo`s taxes from shipping provide a major revenue stream to the insurgency.
Mohamed Abdi, a nurse at the Kismayo hospital said at least five people were killed in the fighting and many wounded.
"I cannot tell you exact casualty numbers as we are busy saving lives," he said.
Sheik Osmail Adow, a spokesman for the Islamic Party, said the clashes began when his fighters come under attack by members of the al-Shabab militia. Al-Shabab spokesman Sheik Hassan Yaqup said his fighters were committed to the defeat of the Islamic Party.
The US State Department has designated al-Shabab a terrorist organisation.
The two groups used to jointly control Kismayo but last week al-Shabab declared themselves the sole administrators. The two sides began swapping insults in the local media and massing fighters on the outskirts of town.
The quarrel will be welcome news to the embattled UN-backed government. Only foreign intervention, including the shipment of 40 tons of weapons from America, saved the government from losing control of the capital after the Islamic Party and al-Shabab formed an alliance last May and launched a sustained assault.
Currently the government, which itself suffers from splits and defections, is only hanging onto a couple of blocks of Mogadishu with the help of around 5,000 African Union peacekeepers. Al-Shabab launched a suicide attack on the peacekeepers earlier this month, killing 21 people.
But the quarrel between the two Islamist factions could easily spread to other areas under their control in southern Somalia, prolonging a hopelessly brutal civil war that has already lasted 18 years. Somali forces fight with little regard for civilians around them.
Kismayo businessman Mohamud Osman said he could already see women and children fleeing from explosions. Resident Asha Kalil said the two sides were firing truck-mounted heavy machine guns and rocket propelled grenades down residential streets.
Somalia is plagued by deadly rivalries between clans, which set up their own militias after the 1991 overthrow of socialist dictator Mohamed Siad Barre. The Islamist movement originally emerged in 2006 as way of unifying the clans and providing order to the chaotic country through a series of community-based Islamic courts. But foreign intervention chased the Islamists from power and they have been fighting a bloody insurgency ever since.
New alliances and factions emerge regularly. The only constant is the death and suffering of the Somali people.