At least 20 people were killed and more than 40 wounded on Saturday when a moderate Islamist group clashed with Somali government troops over control of a town in central Somalia, according to witnesses and regional officials.
The clashes started at dawn Saturday morning when government troops, who have been amassing on the outskirts of Guri-El, a central Somali town some 400 kilometers north of the capital, Mogadishu, attacked bases held by Ahlu Sunna Wal Jama'a (ASWJ) rebels.
According to residents, both sides used heavy artillery, mortars, machineguns, and vehicle-mounted anti-aircraft guns during a fierce battle in the streets.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, military officials from the opposing sides told VOA that both sides suffered fatalities.
A senior official with the Somali National Security Agency, Col: Abdirisaq Mohamud Yusuf, told VOA that the regional commander of Somali's Danab Brigade, Abdiladif Feyfle, was among the dead.
Danab or “lightning” brigadiers are U.S.-trained Somali commandos.
“I can confirm that three of our soldiers were killed and more than 10 injured during the fighting," Ahmed Shire Falagle, Galmudug's regional state information minister, told VOA's Somali Service. "I also know that a significant number of Ahlu Sunna Wal Jama’a militia were killed, although I cannot give exact number.”
Falagle also said government troops ultimately took control of the town and that opposing combatants retreated.
“We have driven the militia out of the town and now they are firing back from the outskirts,” he said.
But witnesses who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal said that government forces managed to hold control of only the police station, the district headquarters and several ASWJ administrative buildings.
“None of the two sides is in full control [of the town] yet," one witness told VOA. "We can hear heavy gunfire and shelling. The government soldiers are positioned at strategic bases at the heart of the town.”
VOA phone calls to several ASWJ officials went unanswered.
A moderate Sufi sect, ASWJ previously assisted Somali government troops battling al-Shabab Islamist extremists, temporarily striking a regional power-sharing deal with the Somali government. Saturday’s fighting followed a simmering dispute over ASWJ's representation in local, state and national government.
Mogadishu has been denying the group's request to have power as an Islamic entity, saying its members should peacefully seek power through their respective clans. It also wanted the group's militia to be integrated into national forces.
In February of last year, Somali troops seized towns previously under ASWJ control, including Guri-El.
Earlier this month, the Islamist group took control of Guri-El unopposed after forcing Somali government troops to withdraw.
In an interview with VOA Somali at the time, the group’s chief, Sheikh Shakir, said it wants to take control of towns and regions to better protect them from al-Shabab extremists.
Since then, tension has been building as government troops began amassing military reinforcement near the town.
The U.N. said on Thursday over 100,000 people had been displaced in Guri-El because of the military buildup.
Efforts to mediate differences by local elders and regional leaders failed, leading to Saturday’s bloody battle.
The fighting comes two days after Somalia's president and prime minister said they had struck a deal to speed up the country’s long-delayed election process and to end a simmering feud that threatened to plunge the Horn of Africa nation into a fresh crisis.
The two men had been deadlocked over top security appointments and dismissals that were triggered by the mysterious disappearance of a female Somali spy who has long been declared dead by the country’s National Intelligence and Security Agency.
Experts warn that continued political instability and renewed fighting with the moderate Islamist group could benefit al-Shabab.
Abdiwahid Mo'alim Isaq has contributed this report from Galkayo. This story originated in VOA's Somali Service.