Somali battle kills 123, maybe including Sheikh Aweys
Battles between rival militant groups in central Somalia have killed 123 people, a rights group said on Saturday, and a pro-government militia said militant rebel leader Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys had died in the fighting. Aweys' militia denied that as propaganda.

Witnesses said scores of bodies lay in the streets of Wabho town after fighters from the al Shabaab and Hizbul Islam groups battled militant group Ahla Sunna Waljamaca for control. Most of the deaths were on Friday.

The local Elman Peace and Human Rights Organisation said it had confirmed 123 fighters killed in one of the worst flare-ups of the year in the conflict-riven Horn of Africa nation.

In Mogadishu, al Shabaab has been battling the security forces of President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed. In the central region, pro- and anti-government militias have been fighting all year, with towns changing hands regularly.

Rebel leader: Among the dead in Wabho, according to pro-government Alha Sunna, was Hizbul Islam leader Aweys, a 62-year-old cleric and hardliner whom the United States and United Nations have accused of links to Al Qaeda. The group said he died of gunshot wounds.

"Hassan Dahir died in El Bur," Alha Sunna spokesman Sheikh Abdullahi Sheikh Abu Yusuf told Reuters, referring to a nearby town with a hospital. "We seriously injured him yesterday. This is good news."

If confirmed, Aweys' death would be a major blow to the rebels and a boost for Ahmed's government, which had tried unsuccessfully to broker peace talks with the cleric. But Hizbul Islam spokesman Sheikh Musa Arale denied the report of Aweys' death. "Sheikh Hassan is alive and unharmed," he told Reuters. "That is the propaganda of our enemies whose commanders and leaders we killed yesterday."

Some residents of Wabho and a Hizbul Islam fighter said Aweys was injured and taken to hospital in El Bur. "I understand Sheikh Hassan was hit by bullets in the back and thighs," the fighter, who asked not to be named, told Reuters. "He may be serious but I have not heard of his death."

Neither side controlled Wabho on Saturday, locals said, but the battles had halted for them to collect and bury corpses.
Posted by: Fred 2009-06-08