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Al-Shabab militants in Somalia have claimed control of the country's southern port town of Kismayo, one day after deadly fighting with a rival Islamist group. But the city remains tense amid reports that factions of the rival group, Hizbul Islam, are preparing to launch a counter offensive.
Al-Shabab militants patrolled Kismayo town in vehicles Friday, assuring residents that the fighting between al-Shabab and militiamen loyal to the Ras Kamboni Brigade and Anole factions of Hizbul Islam is over.
According to residents, the Hizbul Islam factions withdrew from the key port town to villages about 30 kilometers outside of Kismayo after suffering heavy casualties in Thursday's battle.
The early-morning attack by al-Shabab had been widely anticipated. Last week, the two factions of Hizbul Islam, which had been in an uneasy political alliance with al-Shabab since they jointly captured Kismayo last year, rejected a new al-Shabab administration that excluded members of Ras Kamboni and Anole. Taxes collected at the Kismayo seaport represent an important source of revenue for both al-Shabab and Hizbul Islam.
Scores of combatants were killed and wounded on both sides in the battle to possibly include al-Shabab's top military commander in Middle and Lower Jubba regions and a senior Anole commander. There are also reports that al-Shabab militants were fighting in Kismayo under the command of several foreigners, including Eritrean and Pakistani officers.
Al-Shabab, a U.S.-designated terrorist group with ties to al-Qaida, claimed victory. But speaking to Somali reporters late Thursday, al-Shabab's chief spokesman Ali Mohamed Rage, also known as Ali Dhere, insisted that al-Shabab was not at war with Hisbul Islam, but at war with a senior commander of the Ras Kamboni Brigade, who brought fighters into Kismayo earlier this week to challenge al-Shabab's unilateral decision.
The al-Shabab spokesman says his group was forced to defend itself against those who challenged Islamist rule in Kismayo, suggesting that the Ras Kamboni group commander challenged al-Shabab because of clan interests.
Ras Kamboni and Anole are Islamist groups with strong ties to local sub-clans of one of the largest tribes in Somalia, the Darod. Al-Shabab rejects tribalism and wants to turn Somalia into an ultra-conservative Islamic caliphate. Until now, the Islamist alliance in Kismayo has largely been held together by their mutual desire to overthrow the U.N.-backed government in Mogadishu.
A politician from the Lower Juba region, Mohamed Ali Osman says he believes al-Shabab will have a difficult time trying to administer the Juba regions without the support of Ras Kamboni group and Anole.
"Unfortunately, al-Shabab took over [Kismayo] and used the port for in-land revenue and they killed a lot of politicians, intellectuals, and former military officers," said Mohamed Ali Osman. "Therefore, everybody [is] fed up with al-Shabab in Kismayo. We, the local politicians and local people, are supporting Ras Kamboni and Anole because they promised us if they take over Kismayo and the region, they will allow everybody to take part in the administration and also the humanitarian organizations to get access freely."
Osman says since early Friday, reinforcements for Ras Kamboni and Anole have been arriving in Lower Juba from other parts of Somalia and there is growing fear that another vicious round of fighting will soon begin.
Hizbul Islam emerged in February as an insurgent group opposed to Somalia's transitional federal government under former insurgent leader Sharif Sheik Ahmed and the 5,000 African Union troops deployed in Mogadishu to protect the government.
In addition to the Ras Kamboni Brigade and Anole, Hisbul Islam is composed of two other factions - the Alliance for the Re-liberation of Somalia and the Islamic Front. It is yet unclear what role, if any, they are playing in the conflict in Kismayo.