Somalia

At least 27 killed in Somalia clashes

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* Some 250 families flee fighting

* Ahlu Sunna fighters patrolling streets

(Adds Baladwayne fighting, UNHCR update)

By Abdi Sheikh and Abdi Guled

MOGADISHU, Jan 12 (Reuters) - At least 27 people were killed in a third day of fighting between pro-government militias and the al Shabaab rebel group in central Somalia, witnesses and a rights group said on Tuesday.

Al Shabaab, branded by Washington as an al Qaeda proxy in the region, wants to enforce a strict version of Islamic sharia law in the anarchic Horn of Africa nation that has had no functional central government since 1991.

Its fighters and those of the government-friendly Ahlu Sunna Waljamaca militia, which advocates a more moderate version of Islam, clashed in Wabho, Warhole and Baladwayne in central Somalia.

"At least 14 people died and 32 others were injured in Warhole. Most of the casualties are fighters from both groups," Ali Yasin Geddi, the vice chairman of Elman peace and human rights, told Reuters.

"So far 250 families, mostly pastoralists, have fled and there is fear fighting might spread to other areas."

Since the beginning of 2007, clashes have at least killed 19,000 Somalis and displaced 1.5 million people. Western security agencies say Islamist militants, including foreign jihadis, have found safe haven amid the chaos.

Residents say the fighting in Warhole started on Monday and continued in Wabho where al Shabaab fighters retreated.

"Armed Ahlu Sunna vehicles took over Warhole yesterday afternoon and their fighters are on the streets," resident Farhan Ali told Reuters by telephone.

Fighting in the strategic town of Baladwayne in central Somalia killed at least 13 people on Sunday and Monday. [ID:nLDE60A013]

Residents said another 13 people were killed on Tuesday as the two sides pounded each other with shells. Hundreds of residents fled the town.

The United Nation's refugee agency (UNHCR) said on Tuesday the fighting in central and southern Somalia over the past few weeks was driving more refugees into neighbouring countries.

UNHCR said 3,000 Somalis were registered as refugees in Ethiopia in December and 4,175 had registered in Kenya's Dadaab refugee camp since December. It said the total number of Somali refugees in the region was now over 560,000. (Additional reporting by Ibrahim Mohamed; Editing by David Clarke and Giles Elgood)

Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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