Somalia

Fighting in two Somali towns kills at least 18

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* Battles erupt in Baladwayne and Dhobley

* Rights group says death toll likely to rise

* Al Shabaab says U.S. planning suicide blasts

(Adds al Shabaab claim, paragraphs 14-16)

By Abdi Sheikh and Abdi Guled

MOGADISHU, Jan 11 (Reuters) - Fighting killed at least 18 people on Monday in two towns in central Somalia where rebels battled a pro-government militia and each other, according to witnesses.

The Ahlu Sunna Waljamaca militia, which is aligned with President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed's weak U.N.-backed administration, struck at Hizbul Islam insurgents in Baladwayne on Sunday and residents said clashes between the two sides resumed on Monday.

Separately, Hizbul Islam fighters battled in Dhobley with members of another guerrilla group, al Shabaab, which Washington says is al Qaeda's proxy in the failed Horn of Africa state. Fighting has claimed the lives of more than 21,000 Somalis and driven 1.5 million from their homes since the start of 2007.

Western security agencies say the country is a haven for militants and foreign jihadists with the potential to disrupt neighbouring countries.

The rebels want to extend their area of control from the south towards the pro-government, northeastern region of Puntland. Ahmed's government controls little more than the sea port, the airport and his palace in Mogadishu.

Residents in Baladwayne said both sides were exchanging heavy machine gun fire in the streets on Monday, and a Somali human rights group said the death toll of 13 was likely to rise.

"Both groups carried away their casualties. We do not know how many fighters died," Ali Yasin Gedi, vice chairman of the Elman Peace and Human Rights Organisation, told Reuters.

CLASHES NEAR KENYA BORDER

Separately, witnesses said at least five people were killed on Monday as Hizbul Islam and al Shabaab rebels fought each other in Dhobley town, further west near the border with Kenya.

Hizbul Islam and al Shabaab both want to impose a harsh version of sharia across the country -- but have regularly clashed over southern and central territories in recent months.

"We attacked the police station and a military compound in Dhobley. We have killed dozens of al Shabaab fighters," Hizbul Islam member Mahmed Amin told Reuters by telephone.

"We will never stop the fighting."

An al Shabaab spokesman in the rebel-held port of Kismayu denied anyone had died in Dhobley, but declined to elaborate.

In the capital, al Shabaab spokesman Sheikh Ali Mohamud Rage accused the United States of plotting suicide bombings targeting parts of the city including its busy Bakara Market, and said Washington then planned to blame the violence on the insurgents.

"We have discovered that U.S. agencies are going to launch suicide bombings in public places in Mogadishu," Rage told reporters. "They have tried it in Algeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan ... We warn of these disasters. They want to target Bakara Market and mosques, then use that to malign us."

Many residents were sceptical of the claim by the rebels, however, pointing out that al Shabaab was the only group to have carried out suicide attacks in the country in the past.

On Sunday, Ahlu Sunna Waljamaca militiamen said they had executed an al Shabaab commander after he refused to renounce al Shabaab's hardline ideology. [ID:nLDE6090D6] (Additional reporting by Sahra Abdi in Nairobi; Writing by George Obulutsa; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Ralph Boulton)
Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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