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Senior Islamist Leader Assassinated in Somalia

A senior insurgent leader from Hizbul Islam has been shot to death in Mogadishu, deepening a leadership crisis inside the Islamist rebel group. The official, Bare Ali Bare, was an outspoken critic of Hizbul Islam's one-time ally, al-Shabab, raising speculation that the militant group carried out the assassination.

Eyewitnesses say Bare Ali Bare was walking alone in Mogadishu's open-air Bakara market Tuesday, when he was approached by two gunmen. The gunmen shot the Hizbul Islam military leader several times in the head and escaped on foot.

No one has yet claimed responsibility. But Bakara market is a stronghold of al-Qaida's proxy in Somalia, al-Shabab.

Somalis speculate that al-Shabab leaders may have targeted Bare because he had opposed the defection of veteran Islamist fighter Hassan Turki to al-Shabab. Before his surprise defection last month, Hassan Turki was the leader of the Ras Kamboni group, the largest of the four fundamentalist/nationalist groups that make up Hizbul Islam.

Bare was a senior military leader for the Ras Kamboni group and was also loyal to Hizbul Islam's overall leader, Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys.

Whether Hassan Turki, who is reportedly ill, joined al-Shabab voluntarily or was forced to defect is still unclear. But tension between al-Shabab and Hizbul Islam rose sharply after Bare and Aweys criticized al-Shabab for taking Turki away from Hizbul Islam.

Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys, who was one of the top leaders of the Islamic Courts Union before it was ousted by Ethiopian troops in late 2006, played a key role early last year in hammering out an alliance between Hizbul Islam and al-Shabab. For much of 2009, the two Islamist groups fought side-by-side in efforts to topple the U.N.-backed government in Mogadishu.

But according to Somalia analyst for the International Crisis Group, Rashid Abdi, Aweys and Hizbul Islam did not always maintain a solid relationship with al-Shabab.

"I think al-Shabab clearly sees Hizbul Islam as a threat. They initially welcomed Aweys," he said. "But when Aweys decided he wanted to become the unchallenged, supreme leader, the patriarch of the Islamist movement, this was a title which probably al-Shabab was unwilling to give him," said Abdi.

The Hizbul Islam-al-Shabab alliance unraveled further in September, when Ras Kamboni challenged al-Shabab for control of the southern port city of Kismayo. Since then, Ras Kamboni fighters loyal to another military leader, Ahmed Madobe, have repeatedly fought al-Shabab for control of several other towns in the Lower Juba region.

Ahmed Madobe's growing political ambitions also clashed with those of Bare Ali Bare and the two men had become fierce rivals.

Rashid Abdi says it is possible that Bare's death could have something to do with the in-fighting that had been raging within the Ras Kamboni group in recent months.