Somali troops clashed with a regional militia in a serious outbreak of fighting over political rivalries Washington says are slowing the war against al Qaeda-linked insurgents.
Eleven people were killed, witnesses said.
Tension spilled over on Thursday between the Somali National Army and the Ahlu Sunnah Wal Jama’a (ASWJ) militia, a group of moderate Sufi Muslims which played a key role in the fight against the al Qaeda-linked al Shabaab insurgency.
Clashes began in Dhusamareb, administrative capital of Galmudug state, and spread to Guriel on Friday, residents said.
A resident said government forces attacked a house where prominent ASWJ leaders live and the sides were fighting with mortars and anti-aircraft guns in the city centre.
“After 11 years of peace, Dhusamareb today is hell,” Halima Farah told Reuters, adding she and her four children were cowering in their flimsy house. “We are holding our children’s hands but we have no way out.”
Al Shabaab has been fighting the internationally-recognised Somali government since 2008. The militants attacked American military bases as well as bars, hotels, a shopping mall and a university in Kenya and Uganda. Two years ago, an al Shabaab truck bomb in Mogadishu killed around 500 civilians.
Somali government troops, supported by a 21 000-strong African Union peacekeeping force, launched a limited offensive against al Shabaab last year. A top American diplomat said progress petered out due to internal rivalries.
“The operation has stalled,” Rodney Hunter, US political co-ordinator to the UN, told the Security Council. “It is imperative federal government and federal member states’ security services focus on combating al-Shabaab, rather than armed conflict with each other to resolve political disputes.”
Competition for political control and international security funds is at the heart of the conflict.
Some regional states accuse government of meddling in local elections to entrench allies ahead of national elections this year. They want a larger slice of the dollars foreign donors spend annually on Somali security forces.
The federal government wants control of those funds, saying it fears the balkanisation of the country and accuses some state authorities of behaving like warlords.
Tensions were high between Mogadishu and regional authorities in Kismayo during elections in Jubbaland, along the Kenyan border, in August. There was a small clash in neighbouring Gedo earlier this year and what Hunter described as a “politically motivated offensive diverting resources” from fighting al Shabaab.
Galmudug, scene of the latest fighting, has three rival politicians all claiming to be its leader. Ahmed Abdi Kariye, backed by the federal government, said ASWJ forces started the fighting firing on a checkpoint.
ASWJ leaders said the first provocation came from government.
“We sacrificed our wealth and lives to liberate these areas from the terrorist al Shabaab but Somali government forces openly attacked Inji house, a home for ASWJ leaders,” ASWJ leader Sheikh Mohamed Shakir Ali Hassan, who also says he is leader of the state, said.
“We have one enemy and that is al Shabaab. Let’s jointly fight the terrorists.”
Omar Mahmood, an analyst from Brussels-based International Crisis Group, said the power struggles were likely to continue.
“I’m not optimistic,” he said.