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Somalia's Powerful Hizbul Islam Insurgent Group Splits

The most powerful faction of Somalia's Hizbul Islam insurgents has officially cut ties with the group. The split occurred following allegations the Ras Kamboni faction recently signed a secret deal with the Somali government and neighboring Kenya.

A spokesman for the Ras Kamboni faction, Abdiaziz Hassan Abdi, says senior faction members decided to formally withdraw from Hizbul Islam.

Abdi says Ras Kamboni will be led by Ahmed Madobe, who replaced hardline Islamist Hassan Turki last year as the group's military commander.

Tension between Ahmed Madobe and Hizbul Islam leader, Hassan Dahir Aweys, skyrocketed several weeks ago, when Aweys alleged Madobe had entered into an agreement with Somalia's Transitional Federal Government and Kenya.

The Hizbul Islam leader said by signing the deal Madobe had agreed to fight against Hizbul Islam and al-Qaida-linked al-Shabab militants in Somalia's southern Jubba and Gedo regions. Madobe has denied the charge.

Ras Kamboni was the largest and the most well-armed of the four Islamist factions that formed the Hizbul Islam coalition in early 2009. Hizbul Islam subsequently forged an alliance with al-Qaida-linked al-Shabab militants to oppose the U.N.-backed Transitional Federal Government. Last May, the two insurgent groups launched an offensive in the Somali capital that almost toppled the weak government.

But the Hizbul Islam, al-Shabab alliance began to unravel in October, after the two groups clashed over control of the southern port city of Kismayo. Hizbul Islam forces in Kismayo, led by Ahmed Madobe, were forced to leave.

Since then, Madobe's determination to challenge al-Shabab for regional dominance has only intensified.

After Ras Kamboni's conservative Islamist leader Hassan Turki defected to al-Shabab in February, Madobe declared that the extremist group was Somalia's greatest enemy.

That statement that put Hizbul-Islam leader Hassan Dahir Aweys in the awkward position of having to support Madobe as a Hizbul-Islam leader and, at the same time, preaching the importance of unifying the Islamist opposition.

Observers in Somalia say the fracturing of Hizbul Islam was inevitable because Hizbul Islam is at its core nationalist and largely based on clan membership.

Members of the Ras Kamboni group, for example, belong to the Ogaden sub-clan of the Darod, whose territorial claims extend from the Jubba and Gedo regions of southern Somalia into Ethiopia's Ogaden region.

When al-Shabab, a transnational extremist group, began threatening the traditional power base of the Ogaden, observers say Ras Kamboni had little choice but to put clan affiliation ahead of Islamist unity.