MOGADISHU - Somali Islamists have captured a town in the semi-autonomous central state of Galmudug, residents said, part of a string of incursions underscoring the group's gains amid divisions between the central government and its erstwhile allies in the region.
The gains - in towns free of the al Shabaab insurgency for more than a decade - are evidence that the group with links to al Qaeda is capitalizing on deepening political divisions in Somalia ahead of long-delayed presidential elections scheduled for next year.
The group on Tuesday captured the town of Eldheere, 30 km (18 miles) south of Galmudug's capital Dhusamareb. Al Shabaab fighters bombed the police station before taking over the town, residents and an official from Galmudug state's military told Reuters.
Register now for FREE unlimited access to reuters.com"Last night the (Galmudug state) forces left and al Shabaab captured the town," elder Nur Hussein said by phone from Eldheere town on Wednesday.
The Islamists also kidnapped a trader and were threatening a key regional road.
On Monday, al Shabaab fighters briefly took over the town of Mataban before it was reoccupied by troops from Galmudug state, resident Ahmed Abdullahi told Reuters by phone.
"I saw masked al Shabaab fighters raising flags and addressing the people in the centre of town," he said.
Al Shabaab has been fighting in Somalia for years, seeking to topple the central government and rule based on its own strict interpretation of Islamic law.
Major Farah Ahmed, a police officer in Galmudug, confirmed al Shabaab had taken Eldheere but said the state had dispatched troops to dislodge them.
The incursions follow infighting between the Somali government and its erstwhile allies, Ahlu Sunnah Wal Jama'a (ASWJ), a Galmudug militia that was instrumental in the fight against al Shabaab. ASWJ says the government has accepted too many hardline clerics into its fold.
In October, the two sides fought a deadly battle that claimed more than 120 lives. Analysts fear the clash is derailing the fight against al Shabaab. read more
"This is a big threat to Galmudug's cities like Dhusamareb," said Abdisalam Yusuf Guled, former deputy at Somalia's national intelligence service agency, NISA.
Galmudug state did not have enough forces to fight al Shabaab, he added.