MOGADISHU, (Reuters) – Rival Islamist insurgents are squaring up for a fight over southern Somalia’s strategic port of Kismayu after hardline al Shabaab rebels unilaterally named a new administration to run the area.
Animosity has been growing between al Shabaab, which the United States says is al Qaeda’s proxy in the failed Horn of Africa state, and another rebel militia, Hizbul Islam.
The growing rift between the south’s two main rebel groups — which both oppose the fragile U.N.-backed government — only points to more violence in the country, where fighting has killed more than 18,000 civilians since the start of 2007.
Another 1.5 million have been driven from their homes, triggering one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters. Aid officials say at least 60 percent of those in need of help live in areas controlled by the insurgent militias.
Both groups want to control Kismayu, which is a lucrative source of taxes and other income for their fighters, and until this week they controlled the port in an uneasy alliance. Then on Wednesday, al Shabaab named its own local governing council, excluding all their Hizbul Islam rivals.
Residents say both sides are rushing in reinforcements in anticipation of battle, and on Thursday a senior Hizbul Islam leader said they would not recognise the new authority.
“The men who call themselves al Shabaab have formed an administration with disregard to the other mujahideen,” Sheikh Hassan Turki, Hizbul’s deputy leader and the commander of southern Somalia’s Ras Kamboni militant group, told reporters. “No one should claim total control of the city. There should be mediation before there is bloodshed … they broke a promise about forming the town’s administration and should fear Allah.”
Leaflets denouncing al Shabaab, widely thought to have been printed by the Kamboni group, have been circulating in Kismayu in recent weeks, locals say, raising fears of a confrontation.
Security experts say Somalia is a safe haven for wanted militants, including foreign jihadists. On Wednesday the European Union’s aid chief warned it risked becoming “the new Afghanistan” unless Western donors helped its government stop al Qaeda gaining a foothold in the region.
In the latest violence in the capital Mogadishu, clashes killed at least 12 people on Wednesday after insurgents attacked government forces and peacekeeping troops from a 5,000-strong African Union peacekeeping mission, AMISOM.
In their biggest attack on the peacekeepers so far, the rebels hit AMISOM’s headquarters in the city with twin suicide car bombs a week ago, killing 17 soldiers from Burundi and Uganda, including the force’s deputy commander.
Al Shabaab said it carried out the strike in revenge for the killing days earlier of one of Africa’s most wanted al Qaeda suspects by U.S. special forces in the rebel-held south. Hizbul Islam’s leader, Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, justified the use of suicide bombings and called for more such attacks on President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed’s government.