A Somali militant group allied with the country's weak U.N.-backed transitional federal government says it has killed and captured fighters from the al-Qaida-linked al-Shabab militia during clashes in central Somalia.
Analysts say the casualties, reportedly inflicted by the Sufi group Ahlu-Sunna Wal-Jamma'a, could signal the start of a series of significant clashes in the region.
Ahlu-Sunna Wal-Jamma'a spokesman Sheikh Abdullahi Sheikh Abu Yusuf said the group had attacked al-Shabab fighters in and around the central town of Dhusamareb.
He said in this operation, four al-Shabab militia troops were killed, and one captured. He said his group reports no casualties.
Located on a major highway linking Somalia's capital Mogadishu with the northern autonomous region of Puntland, Dhusamareb is seen as a strategically important town in the battle for central Somalia.
In January, al Shabab said it had retreated from Dhusamareb just days after its forces had seized control of the town. Ahlu-Sunna has been attacking al-Shabab positions since taking up arms against the group in 2008.
In March, Ahlu-Sunna signed an agreement with Somalia's transitional federal government to provide support in the fight against al-Shabab in return for senior positions within the government.
Analysts say two planes carrying weapons and ammunitions to be used against al-Shabab were delivered to Ahlu-Sunna in Dhusarmareb last week.
Earlier this week, locals told the United Nations humanitarian news service IRIN fresh fighting had broken out between the two sides. Eyewitnesses estimated around 5,000 families, or 30,000 people, had fled from Dhusarmareb and surrounding towns.
Experts say it could signal the start of increased clashes across central Somalia. International Crisis Group Horn of Africa Director E.J Hogendooen says both sides are mustering fighters in the region.
"All indications, at least from the indications we've received, is that al-Shabab has also moved some of its forces into central Somalia so this may be the start of a fairly significant series of clashes between Alhu Sunna and al-Shabab," Hogendooen said.
Alhu-Sunna Wal-Jamma'a's public perception in Somalia has been marred by its links to Ethiopia, the country's traditional enemy. Addis Ababa reportedly helped the group negotiate a deal with the Somali government.