Tension is rising in Somalia's southern coastal city of Kismayo following fears of impending fighting between Islamist groups Al-Shabab and Hisbul-Islam due to a split within their ranks, local sources told IRIN.
The two groups control Kismayo, 500km south of the capital Mogadishu, and much of the country's southern regions.
The tension follows a decision by Al-Shabab to ignore an earlier agreement between the two that control of the city would rotate between them, a businessman resident in Kismayo, who requested anonymity, said.
"When they [Islamists] captured Kismayo in 2008, they agreed that Al-Shabab will govern for the first six months and then Hisbul-Islam will take over, but Al-Shabab now refuses to honour that agreement," he said.
He said both sides had brought troop reinforcements into the city. Al-Shabab was reported to be digging in on the southern side of the city while Hisbul-Islam had set up defensive positions in the north.
Some residents have started fleeing their homes to safe areas because of the tension.
Contacted by IRIN Radio, Sheikh Ahmed Sheikh Mohamed of Hisbul-Islam admitted there was a problem between the two groups but said talks were ongoing to resolve the differences.
"Elders and professionals are mediating and I am hopeful we will find a solution."
However, he said people's fears were justified given the current situation, "but the opposing sides should resolve their differences by peaceful means and not through violence. A solution is to form a unified administration that brings all on board."
Attempts by IRIN to contact Al-Shabab were unsuccessful.
Mahamud Abaysane, an internally displaced person (IDP) in Kismayo, said: "Many people have already moved to the outskirts of the city to avoid being caught in the middle."
Among those leaving the city were many displaced families. "Hundreds of families have left the camps since Sunday," he said.
The families are said to be going to the north of the city and towards Mogadishu. "They really don’t know where they are going but they want to be out before fighting starts here," Abaysane added.
He said many IDPs had very little to begin with "and now they are on the run again".
Photo: Farhan Lafoole/IRIN
woman and her two children at an IDP camp in Kismayo: Many residents,
including the displaced, have started fleeing Kismayo fearing fighting
between Islamist groups Al-Shabab and Hisbul-Islam (file photo)
Cut off from aid
Abaysane said since the Islamists had taken control of the city, there had been little help from aid agencies. "We are cut off from all assistance," he added.
Another business source told IRIN that people in Kismayo expected fighting to start at any time.
"There are no serious mediations going on and both sides are sticking to their positions," he said. "Unless by some miracle there is a breakthrough, I really don’t see how they can avoid war."
He said a meeting between the two sides had been held but "nothing was achieved".
Business in the city was at a standstill, "with many merchants removing their wares quietly", while the business community was "hoping and praying that the two sides will find a common ground to avoid violence", he added.
At the heart of the matter is a power struggle between the two Islamist groups that have been fighting the government, said another source. "As a partner, Hisbul-Islam feels they have been marginalized by Al-Shabab and I think they have now decided that enough is enough."