Fatalities reported as clashes erupt in central Somalia
At least 12 people were killed on Saturday in central Somalia as pro-government forces recaptured a strategic town from Sufi militants seeking greater regional control, security officials and witnesses said.
Fighters loyal to Ahlu Sunna Wal Jamaa (ASWJ) were driven out of Guricel by national forces and paramilitaries in Galmudug, a region that has long faced an armed struggle by the Sufi militia.
"We have so far confirmed that 12 people, four of them civilians, were killed during heavy fighting in Guricel this morning," Mohamed Bile, a military commander in Galmudug, told AFP by phone.
"That toll could rise, but the situation is now calm and government forces are in control of most neighbourhoods."
ASWJ fighters occupied Guricel earlier this month, taking control of Galmudug's second-largest town after a brief skirmish with local forces.
The Sufi group has controlled many of the major cities in Galmudug over the past decade, and efforts to broker a military and political settlement to their feud with regional authorities have not succeeded.
Galmudug information minister Ahmed Shire blamed ASWJ for provoking the latest clashes.
"Government forces kept their positions for a month, and called on the invading parties to vacate the town peacefully, to avoid armed confrontation and inflicting civilian casualties," he told reporters.
"Unfortunately, they... attacked military bases belonging to government forces, who fiercely repelled their advance. The government has taken back control of their positions, and driven the remnants of the militia into the bush."
Witnesses reported seeing casualties on both sides.
"There is still sporadic gunfire in pockets of town, but I can see military vehicles belonging to the national government in the streets," said Abdirahman Ali, a local resident.
The Sufi group's recent military advances in Galmudug coincide with upper house elections in the region, which is the last of Somalia's five federal member states to complete the long-overdue process.
Elections in Somalia follow a complex indirect model, whereby state legislatures and clan delegates pick lawmakers for the upper and lower houses of parliament, who in turn choose the president.
The presidential election is nearly a year overdue, the process dogged by political infighting at the highest level of government, and feuds between Mogadishu and some states.
The impasse has distracted from Somalia's larger problems, notably the Al-Shabaab insurgency, but also efforts to resolve political disputes at a local level.
ASWJ has played a major role in the fight against Al-Shabaab, the Islamist group fighting to overthrow the government in Mogadishu and those of its allies, including in Galmudug.