Thousands of internally displaced in Somalia’s central town of Beletweyne are on the move again following 10 days of fighting between rival Islamist militias, amid reports of continuing heavy shelling in parts of the town. According to a humanitarian bulletin covering 8-15 January by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), at least 30 people have been killed and 50 injured, mostly civilians, with many artillery shells landing on residential areas. OCHA could not confirm the number of displaced.
The clashes, which have prevented people accessing basic goods and services, pit Hisbul Islam, a group backed by al-Shabab, against Ahlu Sunna Waljama’a, another Islamist group. Al-Shabab, which is opposed to the Transitional Federal Government, controls large areas of southern and central Somalia.
“Heavy shelling by the warring factions has covered over 2 square kilometers of the town’s central area where most business premises—hotels and restaurants, hospitals and electricity generators— are located,” a journalist, who requested anonymity, told IRIN. “Communication has also been affected as two main bridges in the town have been blocked by the fighters.”
OCHA said a mortar shell hit the main hospital in Beletweyne, injuring two medical workers, on Jan. 12.
Locals said since the fighting began, a bridge linking the north and south of the town had become a fighting point, with hundreds of trucks stuck on either side of the road waiting to ferry their goods to various destinations. Some of the vehicles, now parked along the road, were headed to Ethiopia’s Somali region while others were going to southwestern and southern Somalia.
One of the truck drivers told IRIN he was carrying food he had collected from the port of Bossaso, about 1,000 kilometers away. He said he hoped the fighting would soon end so he could resume his journey.
The journalist said no peace efforts had been initiated and that the fighting had split the town, with each faction trying to maintain their strongholds.
A relief worker, who declined to be named, said the town previously hosted 35,000 to 40,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) who have, since the fighting began, fled to other areas.
Some of those displaced have gone to Buleburde, Elgal, Berhano, Luq Jelow and Buqaqable areas in central Somalia. The aid worker said the newly displaced had no shelter, food or water and that no agencies were operating in town since the fighting started.
A village elder in Beletweyne said the cause of the latest conflict between the two groups seemed to be sectarian, with Ahlu Sunna Waljama’a accusing Hisbul Islam and al-Shabab of having brought a “wrong” Islamic ideology—based on violence, terrorizing and killing innocent people—to the country.
The elder said Ahlu Sunna Waljama’a believed fighting its rivals was the only way to remove them. On the other hand, he said, Al-Shabab and Hisbul Islam believed they were fighting a “holy war” against a western-backed group.
“This fighting is not clan-based, it is about religious ideology. Both sides cannot sit at a table to negotiate due to their beliefs; elders have urged them to stop fighting and give a chance to civilians who have fled to return home but no group has listened,” the elder said. “If anything, both sides are receiving reinforcements.”
Meanwhile, in the capital, Mogadishu, fighting between government troops and al-Shabab continued to disrupt day-to-day activities, sources said.
A doctor at Madina Hospital, the city’s main health facility, said heavy shelling had become a daily occurrence and many civilians had been killed and dozens injured.
The doctor, who requested anonymity, said 120 injured people had been brought to the hospital in the past week. He said the main challenge was the lack of orthopaedic medical staff to attend to patients with broken limbs. He added that some of the patients required specialized treatment, which was only available outside the country.
According to the UN, at least 1.5 million Somalis are displaced, with conflict and hyperinflation combining to create a humanitarian crisis. The UN estimates that at least 3.6 million Somalis needed food aid.
From IRIN, Jan. 19
We have noted before that Ahlu Sunna Waljama’a is actually a Sufi group, and that the US could seek to groom Sufis as proxies to fight the Shabab. Has this now come to pass, or is the charge just Shabab propaganda?