Rival Islamist groups in central Somalia clashed Sunday for control of a small trading town in the Galgadud region, killing as many as 30 people and wounding more than 50. The violence is the latest sign of sharp divisions forming within Somalia's insurgency movement as Ethiopia prepares to withdraw its troops.
The fighting erupted between the radical al-Shabab militia and fighters loyal to a newly-militarized Sufi Muslim group called Ahlu-Sunna Wal-Jama'a early Sunday in Guriel, about 370 kilometers north of the capital Mogadishu.
The local spokesman of Ahlu-Sunna Wal-Jama'a, Abdirasak Mohamed Ali Ashari, said dozens of al-Shabab fighters attacked the town early Sunday with mortars and heavy weapons, killing and wounding many people, including children.
Ashari said the Shabab tried to re-take the town, which it lost late last month in a previous round of fighting.
Ashari said Ahlu-Sunna Wal-Jama'a fighters successfully defended the town, killing more than 50 Shabab militiamen. He said the local Shabab commander was also killed in battle.
The leaders of al-Shabab have acknowledged ties to al-Qaida and the group is listed as a terrorist organization by the United States. It promotes an ultra-conservative form of Sunni Islam, which challenges the tenets of Sufism, the more spiritual and mystical form of Islam that has traditionally been practiced in Somalia.
The presence of al-Shabab in Somalia's Islamic Courts Union prompted Ethiopia, with U.S. support, to intervene in late 2006 to oust the courts from power.
Since then, the Shabab group has been, more or less, united in opposition with more moderate Islamist groups and some clans against Ethiopia's military presence in Somalia and the weak and corrupt transitional government Addis Ababa was propping up in Mogadishu.
But as the transitional government headed toward collapse, the Islamist-led insurgency also began showing divisions. One group, led by moderate Islamist leader Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed signed a peace deal with the government in June, which included a timetable for Ethiopia's withdrawal from Somalia. But al-Shabab refused to negotiate and continued fighting alongside other Islamist insurgent groups, who were not convinced the Ethiopians would withdraw.
In the following months, Islamist insurgents, led by al-Shabab, regained control of most parts of south and central Somalia.
Just as the Islamists appeared poised to take power in Somalia, the split within the Islamist insurgency deepened.
Al-Shabab angered moderate Islamists last month by desecrating the graves of Sufi clerics buried in the al-Shabab-controlled southern city of Kismayo. A moderate religious brotherhood called Ahlu-Sunna Wal-Jama'a subsequently emerged as a military faction, calling on followers to wage a holy war against al-Shabab.
Ahlu-Sunna Wal-Jama'a fighters in the Galgadud region launched attacks on al-Shabab in Guriel and Dusamareb, denouncing, among other things, the extreme form of Islamic law imposed in areas under the militant group's control. Ahlu-Sunna Wal-Jama'a has vowed to roll back al-Shabab gains in other parts of Somalia.
The spokesman of the Shabab group, Muktar Robow, alleged the new military faction is nothing more than a proxy militia fighting on behalf of Ethiopia.
Robow said al-Shabab is not fighting a religious group, but a group led by factional leaders armed and funded by Ethiopia.
Ahlu-Sunna Wal-Jama'a said it is a legitimate religious movement, which is fighting on behalf of the Somali people.