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Sectarian Fighting Erupts in Central Somalia

Nearly a dozen people have been killed in fighting in central Somalia between a Sufi Muslim group and al-Qaida-linked al-Shabab militants

Ahlu-Sunna spokesman Sheik Abdullahi Sheik AbuYusuf says heavily-armed al-Shabab fighters attacked Dhusamareb town early Saturday with gunfire and mortars.

The spokesman adds that many al-Shabab fighters were killed in the day-long battle and Ahlu-Sunna is still in control of the town in the Galgadud region, about 560 kilometers north of Mogadishu. His group, he says, will re-double its efforts to win the war against al-Shabab.

But late Saturday, the Mogadishu-based spokesman for al-Shabab, Ali Mohamed Rage, also known as Ali Dhere, also claimed victory.

Rage says al-Shabab received assistance from locals to defeat Ahlu-Sunna forces in Dhusamareb. He says al-Shabab now has control of the town.

Eyewitnesses say most of the residents have fled, fearing more violence between the Islamist rivals.

Ahlu-Sunna Wal-Jamaa took up arms against al-Shabab more than a year ago, after al-Shabab militants desecrated the graves of revered Sufi clerics. For several years, al-Shabab, which follows the ultra-conservative branch of Islam propagated by al-Qaida and the Taliban, has been trying to eradicate Sufism, a mystical branch of Islam, which has deep roots in Somalia.

The sectarian war between Ahlu-Sunna and al-Shabab is just one of several conflicts raging between and among Islamist groups in Somalia. In September, a power struggle erupted in violence in the lower Juba region between al-Shabab and Hizbul Islam, a clan-based Islamist-nationalist group which had been al-Shabab's main ally in its year-long battle to overthrow the U.N.-backed government in Mogadishu.

A suicide bombing on December 3 at a graduation ceremony for medical students in Mogadishu tested al-Shabab's unity as well, when several of the group's leaders reportedly balked at taking responsibility for a bombing that killed and wounded more than 60 civilians.

Reports from Somalia at the time said that al-Shabab leader Muktar Robow Abu Mansoor and spokesman Ali Mohamed Rage were deeply concerned that the bombing, believed to have been planned and executed by al-Qaida-trained foreigners in Somalia, could turn public opinion against al-Shabab. Some reports said the dispute had caused al-Shabab to split into two factions.

But on Friday, Robow and Rage were again seen in the company of ultra-hardliners at an al-Shabab-run military camp in north Mogadishu. In a fresh show of leadership, Robow presented hundreds of new fighters, declaring that al-Shabab was ready to send reinforcements to Yemen to assist al-Qaida there in its fight against the West.

In May 2008, a U.S. missile killed the founder of al-Shabab, Aden Hashi Ayro, at his home in Dhusamareb.