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Al-Shabab Lose Control of Somali Border Town

A contested Somali town near the border with Kenya is reported to be back in the hands of Hizbul Islam after several days of heavy fighting between Hizbul Islam forces allied with local militias and al-Qaida-linked militants.

Residents of Dobley say the town is quiet following a day of intense fighting that killed more than a dozen people, mostly fighters. Hizbul Islam commanders said they seized several armed trucks from al-Shabab fighters, who fled toward the southern port city of Kismayo.

Dobley came under control of al-Shabab militants in late November after the local clan-based leader of Hizbul Islam, Ahmed Madobe, and his forces were chased out. For the second time this month, Madobe led an attack on al-Shabab in Dobley on Tuesday, but failed to re-capture the town.

Ahmed Madobe's faction of Hizbul Islam split from an alliance with al-Shabab in September after a power struggle over Kismayo. Since then, Madobe's forces have repeatedly clashed with al-Shabab in several towns in the Lower Juba region.

But it is unclear who led Thursday's attack on al-Shabab. The spokesman for Hizbul Islam in the Jubba regions, Abdinasir Seraar, said his group attacked and is now in control of Dobley. But Mohamed Amin Osman, who is a member of the transitional parliament and heads a local clan-based militia group called the Jubba Resistance Movement, says his forces led the assault, aided by Hizbul Islam fighters.

"They joined us because they belong in the area and they are part of the same sub-clan," he explained. "So, in that way, we are cooperating, side-by-side against al-Shabab. But our militia has pulled out of Dobley. We are a local militia. We have never received support [from] anywhere and we do not have ammunition and logistics. Therefore, we cannot continue [the] defense of Dobley."

Osman says Hizbul Islam in the Jubba regions and the Jubba Resistance Movement share the same goal of defeating al-Shabab, an al-Qaida ally that is considered a terrorist organization by several countries in the West, including the United States.

But Osman says his movement does not share the same religious agenda as Hizbul Islam. He says the Jubba Resistance Movement, is focused on creating a semi-autonomous administration that remains under the umbrella of Somalia's U.N.-backed Transitional Federal Government. A model for that is Puntland, the semi-autonomous region in northern Somalia which formed its own administration in 1998.

"The local people do not support Hizbul Islam. Local people support the TFG," he said. "But the TFG does not support the people. This is the problem. If we had logistics support, we believe we can take Kismayo and the whole region. But unfortunately, the international community is ignoring us," said Osman.

The idea of creating semi-autonomous zones in Somalia has gained traction in recent months among regional leaders in central and southern Somalia, who are not convinced the government in Mogadishu is willing to share power and resources equitably.

But an anti-al-Shabab group called Ahlu-Sunna Wal-Jama'a may abandon its plan to create a super-semi-autonomous administration in central Somalia. The group, made up of Sufi religious leaders and factional leaders, is reportedly on the verge of joining the Transitional Federal Government in exchange for several senior cabinet posts following talks in Addis Ababa.

Ahlu-Sunna spokesman, Sheik Abdulkadir Sheik Abdurahman al-Qadi, says his group is prepared to take back all areas of the country under al-Shabab control.

Al-Qadi says plans are in place to oust al-Shabab from Somalia within the next six months and military operations will begin soon.

In recent weeks, residents in the Somali capital Mogadishu have been fleeing amid speculation that fighting between the government and al-Shabab could flare at any time.