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Somali Insurgents Take Another Town North of Capital

Islamist insurgents in Somalia have captured another town to the north of the capital, Mogadishu. Insurgents took control of Mahaday on Sunday after seizing the nearby town of Jowhar earlier in the day.

Jowhar and Mahaday are located about 20 kilometers apart, roughly 100 kilometers north of the Somali capital, Mogadishu. The towns had been held by the Islamic Courts Union, an Islamist militia that backs Somalia's fragile government in its struggle with hard-line Islamist militias.

The loss of the towns cuts off the government's link with central Somalia, where pro-government forces still control pockets of territory. The area is also the birthplace of President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, marking a symbolic setback for the government.

The radical Islamist Al-Shabab militia, and Hizbul Islam, an allied coalition of Islamist militias, launched a coordinated assault on the government ten days ago. At least 110 people have been killed by the fighting in Mogadishu. Hundreds have been wounded and the United Nations says that nearly 34,000 had been displaced by Friday, most of them only recently returned to the capital.

The government has accused Eritrea of supporting the insurgents, and Gulf Arab states have also been suspected of providing assistance.

The government and its allies now control only a few key landmarks in Mogadishu, and some territory around Beledweyn in central Somalia, near the border with Ethiopia. Insurgents and pro-government fighters have also been clashing in that area in recent days, and reports from Somalia indicate that more insurgent fighters may be on their way.

In one positive development for the government, Sheikh Yusuf Mohamed Siad, known as "Indha'Adde", a powerful warlord who has been wavering between support for the government and the insurgency, said late Sunday that he would back the president.

He praised the government's decision to enact Islamic law in the country, rejecting the insurgents claim the government's Islamic credentials are not strong enough. He said the people of Somalia support the government, and he said he would help defend it against the insurgents.

The fighting has brought government activities to a standstill. The parliament has been prevented from meeting, and many of its members have left the country.

The African Union, which maintains a force of about 4,000 Ugandan and Burundian peacekeepers in the country has said it may appeal for support from the European Union and NATO, which have warships deployed off the Somali coast to combat piracy. The African Union has also asked the United Nations to deploy peacekeepers, but the U.N. Security Council has said the security situation remains too precarious.

When President Sharif, a moderate Islamist and former insurgent leader, took office in January many saw it as the country's best hope for restoring peace in years. But his government's efforts at reconciliation have been rejected by the leaders of the hardline Islamist militias, many of whom served alongside President Sharif in the Islamic Courts Union that briefly controlled the country in 2006.

That government was removed by Ethiopian troops with American backing. The hardline insurgents maintain that, despite his Islamist past, President Sharif is, like his predecessor, beholden to Ethiopia and the United States.