At least 47 people have been killed in central Somalia in fighting between Islamist rebels and a pro-government group for control of a strategic town, a human rights group and residents said.
Al Shabaab, which seeks to impose strict Islamic rule on Somalia, attacked Dusamareb, 560 km (350 miles) north of the capital last Saturday, pounding positions of moderate Muslim group Ahlu Sunna Waljamaca.
The clashes were the first in the town since December 2008 when the Ahlu Sunna took it after ousting al Shabaab fighters.
The town is the capital of the central region of Galgadud, coveted by al Shabaab, who would like to extend their area of control between Mogadishu and the pro-government northeast region of Puntland.
“We have counted 47 dead bodies and one hundred injured,” Ali Yasin Gedi, vice chairman of Elman peace and human rights group told Reuters.
“Most of the casualties are from the two groups. The death toll might be double that as residents are still collecting bodies from alleys and under the trees. The whole region is tense and residents are fleeing from other towns.”
A town resident agreed with Gedi’s assessment:
“We have collected 77 dead bodies from inside and around Dusamareb town. We have reports that there are more dead bodies in the suburbs of the town. Yesterday afternoon’s fighting was very fierce,” local elder Hussein Aden told Reuters by phone.
Ahlu Sunna’s spokesman said they had regained the town after losing it briefly to al Shabaab on Saturday.
“Our forces are in full control of the town now. We have chased them away from here yesterday. Their dead bodies packed the streets. We will surely pursue them in the other towns they went to,” Sheikh Abdullahi Sheikh Abu Yusuf, told Reuters.
Another resident said the presence of Ahlu Sunna’s fighters on the streets of the town was not wholly re-assuring.
“We are afraid al Shabaab will attack again here. We are civilians, our sole power is to flee,” Abdullahi Bile said.
Al Shabaab, which Washington accuses of being al Qaeda’s proxy in the region, was not immediately available for comment.
The insurgency led by al Shabaab has undermined Western efforts to install an effective government in the country, which has been without one for the last 19 years.
Its prime minister said the government was ready to launch an offensive against the rebels, who are causing growing concerns due to their ability to team up with their counterparts in the Arabian Peninsula and perpetrate attacks.
“Our troops are prepared to act, and flush these terrorists out of the capital before the end of January, and continue taking over the control of more territories from these fighters,” Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke told Reuters in the Kenyan capital Nairobi.