<!-- IMAGE -->
The spokesman for Somalia's militant al-Shabab group in Kismayo says members of the Ethiopia-based rebel group, Ogaden National Liberation Front, are fighting alongside one of the factions of al-Shabab's former Islamist ally, Hizbul Islam, in the south of the country. The accusation runs counter to Ethiopia's claim that the ONLF has ties to al-Shabab.
Al-Shabab's spokesman for the Jubba regions, Hassan Yacqub, spoke to local reporters late Monday, following a day of heavy fighting between the militant group and forces led by Islamist leader Ahmed Madobe in Lower Juba.
Madobe is the newly-appointed leader of the Ras Kamboni Brigade, an Islamist group that also has strong ties to a regionally dominant Somali sub-clan called the Ogaden.
Yacqub says the fighting began after Ahmed Madobe led an attack on al-Shabab bases in the village of Hagar. The al-Shabab spokesman says Madobe's troops included ONLF fighters.
Monday's fighting appeared to be a continuation of the violent power struggle that erupted in the port city of Kismayo in late September between al-Shabab and factions of Hizbul Islam, led by Ras Kamboni.
Al-Shabab and Hizbul Islam, which formed an alliance earlier this year to oppose the U.N.-backed government in Mogadishu, had jointly administered Kismayo since they captured the city in August 2008. Violence broke out after al-Shabab militants tried to exclude Hizbul Islam members from holding top positions.
Al-Shabab's claim that ONLF fighters were part of Ahmed Madobe's force could not be independently verified. But it appeared to contradict accusations by Ethiopia that ONLF has ties to al-Shabab, a radical Islamic movement that is believed to be a proxy for al-Qaida in Somalia.
ONLF is a rebel group in the Ogaden, an area dominated by the Ogaden sub-clan which came under Ethiopian rule in the mid 19th century. Since 1995, the military wing of the ONLF has been waging a separatist war against the government of Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, while its largely secular political wing has been trying to secure recognition and support from the West.
The vice chairman of the ONLF, Abdikadir Hassan Hirmoge, tells VOA that the ONLF has no links to al-Shabab and has urged young men in the Ogaden to reject the group's radical agenda. He says his group also does not encourage people in the Ogaden region to go to Somalia to fight against militants.
"Our people are under big pressure. We try to educate, we try to use our media. We want to explain to our people what our future is," said Hirmoge. "But we are very concerned. I hope we can lead our people to a peaceful solution and liberate Ogaden."
Somali analysts say the fighters identified as ONLF by al-Shabab may be a group from the Ogaden region. But they are more likely to be fighting alongside Ras Kamboni Brigade as fellow clan members rather than as representatives of the ONLF.