REUTERS - Twelve people were killed on Saturday when an Islamist group seized control of a central Somali town in a battle with hardline al Shabaab militants, residents said.
Al Shabaab, which means youth in Arabic, captured Gurael, 370 km (230 miles) north of the capital Mogadishu on Dec. 6, after three days of fighting with a government-allied moderate Sunni Islamist group in the area.
Locals said the Sunni Islamist group ousted by al Shabaab three weeks ago known as "Ahlu Sunna Waljamaca" had been regrouping and launched their attack on Saturday morning.
"I have counted 12 dead fighters lying in the alleys of Gurael," witness Ali Aden told Reuters. "Some of them were injured by a mortar that landed in the hospital. Others were hit by stray bullets," he added.
Al Shabaab, which is on Washington's list of foreign terrorist groups, and other more moderate rebel Islamist groups control all of the south and centre of Somalia except Mogadishu and Baidoa, the seat of parliament.
A spokesman from Ahlu Sunna Waljamaca said the group was fighting al Shabaab because they had killed several religious leaders and had desecrated graves, which he said was against Islam.
"We shall continue our war until we eliminate al Shabaab, they are not Muslims ... Gurael is under our control and soon
all central regions will follow suit," Sheikh Abdullahi Sheikh Abu Yusuf told Reuters by telephone.
More than 10,000 civilians have been killed during the two-year insurgency, a million people uprooted and a third of
the population need emergency aid in a humanitarian crisis that has been described as one of the worst in the world.
Ethiopian troops, which have been propping up the government since 2006, are due to withdraw from Somalia by the end of this month, and some diplomats and analysts fear their withdrawal will plunge Somalia further into anarchy.
Somalia's President Abdullahi Yusuf is expected to resign soon, bowing to pressure from western countries and regional
leaders who accuse him of obstructing peace efforts aimed at including opposition groups in the country's government.
Analysts say Islamists must be included in peace talks with the government to ensure lasting peace in the chaotic country which has been without a central government for 17 years.