"At Least 56 Killed as Islamist Groups Fight Over a Somali Town
MOGADISHU, Somalia (Reuters) — Rival Islamist groups battled for a central Somali town on Friday, leaving at least 56 militants dead, while the number of new refugees from a month of fighting in the capital, Mogadishu, approached 100,000.
Somalia’s insurgency, which represents the latest cycle of violence in 19 years of conflict in the nation, has killed 18,000 civilians and thousands of fighters.
It has also drawn foreign jihadists into Somalia, enabled piracy to flourish offshore and unsettled the whole region, with the country’s East African neighbors on high security alert.
On Friday, rebels from two militant groups, the Shabab and Hizbul Islam, said they had wrested control of Wabho, the town in central Somalia, from pro-government moderate Islamists, known as Ahlu Sunnah Wal Jama, in a day of heavy mortar and machine-gun exchanges, witnesses said.
“We have pounded mortars on the infidels and entered the town from all sides,” said Sheikh Muse Arale, a spokesman for Hizbul Islam. “Wabho is now under our control.”
Fighters said dozens were killed, and a local group, the Elman Peace and Human Rights Organization, said it had confirmed 56 fighters killed and dozens more wounded.
Towns in central Somalia have been changing hands regularly between militant and moderate groups in intermittent fighting this year.
Later on Friday, however, the pro-government group Ahlu Sunnah said that it had retaken Wabho. Leaders on both sides were interviewed by satellite phone, but other phone lines to the town were cut, so it was not possible to independently verify what had taken place.
The United Nations refugee agency said that 96,000 residents had been forced from their homes in Mogadishu since a flare-up in fighting between the rebels and government forces in early May. That has added to the more than one million internal refugees in Somalia.
Aid agencies say Somalia now has one of the world’s worst, and most neglected, humanitarian crises. Among other things, three million Somalis urgently need food aid, officials said.
The United Nations said that about 35,000 of those who were displaced in Mogadishu over the past month were still in the city and were seeking shelter, because they had no means to leave.
An additional 26,000 people have reached makeshift camps 20 miles southeast of Mogadishu, according to the relief agency, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or U.N.H.C.R.
“According to U.N.H.C.R.’s local partners in Somalia, some 2,000 people have indicated that they plan to cross the border into Kenya,” the agency said in a statement. “More than a thousand said they are ready to risk their lives and make the perilous journey with smugglers across the Gulf of Aden to Yemen.”