- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 15, 2009

MOGADISHU, SOMALIA (AP) - Clashes between rival Islamist militias have killed at least 14 people in central Somalia, residents said Sunday. The fighting is the latest sign of deep divisions among Islamist insurgents.

Residents said most of those killed in Saturday and Sunday’s clashes were fighters for the al-Shabab group or its rival Ahlu-sunah Wal-jamea.

The U.S. State Department says some al-Shabab leaders have links to al-Qaida and the group has launched several attacks on African Union peacekeepers. Ahlu-sunah Wal-jamea has a more moderate reputation for promoting Somalia’s traditional Sufi form of Islam.

The weekend clashes in the town of Wabho killed eight people, mainly fighters, said resident Ali Mohamed. Six people were killed in the nearby village of Dac, says Hassan Ali.

Both sides used heavy machine guns, artillery and mortars in Wabho and Mohamed said many civilians had been injured.

Ahlu-sunah Wal-jamea spokesman Sheik Abdullahi Sheik Abu Yusuf told The Associated Press the fighting was ongoing on Sunday and he claimed victory over al-Shabab.

The two militias have clashed repeatedly over control of the region since late 2008 as the Islamist insurgency splintered. Some factions have signed a peace deal with the U.N-backed government, other factions are negotiating with it and other factions reject it entirely. The negotiations were strengthened in January, when a former Islamist fighter with a reputation for moderation was elected president by parliament after his predecessor resigned.

The same month, Ethiopian troops supporting the shaky government withdrew under the terms of a peace deal. They had entered the country two years earlier to overthrow an Islamist regime that had taken control of the capital and much of the south.

The withdrawal of the Ethiopia, a Christian nation with a shared border and a history of antagonism with Somalia, satisfied a key demand of many of the insurgents. But al-Shabab commanders say the Ethiopians selectively armed clan militias like Ahlu-sunah Wal-jamea before they withdrew to divide the insurgency, a charge the militia denies.

The fighting between Islamist insurgents and the government is complicated by the involvement of clan militias and archenemies Ethiopia and Eritrea. The country has not had a functioning government for a generation.

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