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Militants capture key town in Somalia

Militant Islamist fighters captured a strategic town north of Mogadishu yesterday, leaving government forces isolated in pockets of the Somali capital and central region after two weeks of heavy clashes.

In a sign of some disarray among militant ranks, however, a former warlord and powerful opposition leader defected to the government side at the weekend.

President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed's United Nations-backed government is struggling to contain powerful insurgents, currently led by hardline militant al Shabaab.

"Al Shabaab captured Jowhar after serious fighting on Sunday morning," resident Ismail Farah said. "At least seven people including four civilians died."

In the past two weeks, fighting in southern Somalia has killed at least 172 civilians and wounded 528 others, according to a rights group.

Somali Security Minister Omar Hashi Aden said the militants were being supported from outside.

He has previously accused Eritrea of arming the insurgents, a charge it denies.

Eighteen years of conflict have destabilized the region, sent tens of thousands across the border, and drawn foreign militants and a flood of arms to the Horn of Africa nation.

Pirates have taken advantage of the anarchy with ever bolder attacks on international shipping. Nearly 30 hijackings so far this year have set it on course to be the worst ever.

In a much-needed boost for the government, former warlord and powerful opposition leader Sheikh Yusuf Mohamed Siad, also known as "Inda'ade," defected to its side over the weekend.

Inda'ade's former group, Hizbul Islam, an umbrella opposition group, confirmed the defection. "(Inda'ade) and his troops have left us and joined the government ... but that will not affect us," said spokesman Hassan Mahdi.

The International Crisis Group think tank said Somalia's opposition groups had become deeply divided. "There is now a battle shaping up between reportedly moderate Muslims and the extremists, such as Al-Shabaab," it said.


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