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A power struggle between Islamist insurgent groups in Somalia's strategic southern port town of Kismayo is threatening to turn violent and tear the alliance apart. The rift between al-Shabab and Hisbul Islam Islamist groups has also been growing in other insurgent-controlled regions of Somalia.
Hundreds of people in Kismayo took to the streets Monday, demanding a peaceful end to a political dispute that began last week between two factions of Hisbul Islam and the local leaders of Somalia's al-Qaida-linked militant group, al-Shabab.
Residents say they fear violence could break out at any time, following threats by al-Shabab to retaliate against Hisbul Islam's decision to send hundreds of extra fighters and dozens of battle wagons into the city on Saturday. The arrival of the fighters forced al-Shabab to withdraw most of its guerrilla force out of Kismayo and re-locate them to another town north of the city.
The two Hisbul Islam factions, Ras Kamboni and Anole, and al-Shabab have been in an uneasy alliance in Kismayo since last August, when they jointly captured the city from a local factional leader. In addition to sharing security and administrating duties, the Islamist groups shared tax and other key revenue generated from Kismayo seaport and airport.
But on Wednesday, al-Shabab named its own local governing council for Kismayo that excluded members of the Ras Kamboni Brigade and Anole. Al-Shabab's announcement angered the powerful Islamist leader of the Ras Kamboni group and Hisbul Islam in the Lower Jubba region, Hassan Turki, who denounced the new al-Shabab administration and has refused to recognize it.
Al-Shabab has downplayed the possibility of an outbreak of violence between the groups, noting that they remain important allies in the insurgency to overthrow the U.N.-backed transitional federal government in Mogadishu.
Speaking to local reporters, al-Shabab's spokesman in Kismayo Hassan Yaqub said that the extra Hisbul Islam fighters had been sent to Kismayo not by Hassan Turki, but by a local Hisbul Islam commander named Ahmed "Madobe" Mohamed.
Yaqub says it was the military commander, who sent the fighters to take Kismayo without a clear order from the top. Yaqub says Mohamed's aim was to create insecurity and to sow discord among the Islamist allies.
There has been no comment from Hassan Turki or from the chairman of Hisbul Islam, Hassan Dahir Aweys, on the taking of Kismayo by Hisbul Islam forces.
Aweys is also the leader of the hard-line faction of the Alliance for the Re-liberation of Somalia or ARS. ARS, the Ras Kamboni Brigade, Anole, and the Islamic Front make up the four factions of Hisbul Islam that emerged as an insurgent group in February 2009.
Although Hisbul Islam and al-Shabab share the goal of toppling the government and forcing the withdrawal of 5,000 African Union peacekeeping troops from Somalia, they are believed to have sharply differing religious and political agendas. Recently, those differences have played a role in igniting power struggles in other parts of Somalia.
Last week in Somalia's Gedo region, local Hisbul Islam officials angered al-Shabab by unilaterally appointing a governor, a security chief, and a treasurer for the region. Hisbul Islam officials said the move was prompted by the defection of several Hisbul Islam officials in Gedo to al-Shabab.