Somalia

Rival Islamists clash near Somali capital, 6 dead

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By Abdi Sheikh

MOGADISHU, Nov 17 (Reuters) - Rival Islamist militia have fought in a town just outside Somalia's capital Mogadishu, illustrating splits in the forces ranged against the government and its Ethiopian military backers.

Six people died in the shootout at a checkpoint in Elasha, 15 km (9 miles) south of Mogadishu, on Sunday night, witnesses said, sending refugees and residents fleeing into local woods.

The Islamists, who have been waging a nearly two-year insurgency in the Horn of Africa nation, took Elasha last week, giving them their closest base yet to the capital.

But they are split between the so-called "Djibouti group", which supports a U.N.-brokered peace process that foresees power-sharing between the Islamists and the government, and the "Asmara group" which opposes any accord.

Peace talks have been taking place in Djibouti, while some exiled hardline Islamists leaders have been based in Asmara, the capital of Eritrea.

Witnesses said two factions of the Islamic Courts Union, one of the main Islamist groups, fired grenades and machine-guns at each other near the checkpoint at Elasha. Two fighters from each side, plus two civilians, died, they said.

"People shouldered their children and deserted the town at once," resident Mohamed Hussein said.

The Islamists' advance on Mogadishu in recent days has raised the stakes in an insurgency that is the latest manifestation of 17 years of civil conflict in Somalia since warlords toppled a dictator in 1991.

The conflict has destabilised the Horn of Africa, created one of the world's worst refugee crises, spawned a wave of piracy off the coast, frustrated international peace efforts, and delayed plans to explore for oil and minerals.

GOVERNMENT SPLIT TOO

President Abdullahi Yusuf said over the weekend that Islamists now control most of Somalia and raised the prospect his government could completely collapse.

"We are only in Mogadishu and Baidoa, where there is daily war," he said. Baidoa is the seat of parliament, but, like Mogadishu, faces daily guerrilla-style attacks.

Splits in the Western-backed Somali government, which has little control on the ground beyond its own Ethiopian-protected bases, have hindered its ability to manage the situation.

Prime Minister Nur Hassan Hussein blamed Yusuf for failing to approve a cabinet reshuffle that regional heads-of-state ordered Somalia to carry out as a step towards power-sharing.

"I am very disappointed that the president has rejected approval of the list of cabinet ministers I submitted to him," Hussein told reporters in Nairobi during a visit.

He accused Yusuf of his dragging his feet on the peace process.

A local Somali human rights group said fighting had killed another 325 civilians in the last two months, adding to nearly 10,000 killed since the start of 2007. About one million of Somalia's 9 million people live as internal refugees. (Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by David Clarke)

(For full Reuters Africa coverage and to have your say on the top issues, visit: http://africa.reuters.com/)

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