MOGADISHU (Reuters) - Heavy fighting between a government-allied militia and al Qaeda-linked rebels in central Somalia killed dozens of fighters on Tuesday, residents said, as Islamist militants also stepped up attacks in the capital.
Dusamareb, 560 km (350 miles) north of Mogadishu and the capital of Galgadud region in central Somalia, has been under the control of the Ahlu Sunna militia group for years.
Residents said al Shabaab, which controls two other towns in the region, stormed Dusamareb early on Tuesday, looting shops and cars before they were repelled by Ahlu Sunna.
"The death toll has now risen to about 50, this includes five civilians. Al Shabaab also kidnapped a local elder they linked to the (Ahlu Sunna group)," Ali Hussein told Reuters from Dusamareb.
Hussein said he counted the bodies of 27 al Shabaab members in front of a police station and another seven outside the city. He saw eight bodies belonging to Ahlu Sunna.
"The death toll may rise as more dead are reported to be lying under the trees in the outskirts of the city. The fiercest part of the war took place a few kilometres outside," he said.
Dusamareb residents gathered at a police station where a lorry brought in bodies, thought to be of al Shabaab fighters, from just outside city.
Al Shabaab's military operations spokesman, Sheikh Abdiasis Abu Musab, said the group had taken Dusamareb but then left for "military tactical reasons".
Ahlu Sunna commander Abdi Hussein said his group had regained control of Dusamareb after killing dozens of al Shabaab fighters. He said four of his fighters had died.
In Mogadishu, militants launched mortars at Somalia's presidential palace for a second night running, drawing retaliatory fire from African Union peacekeepers in some of the heaviest fighting to rock the capital in months, residents said.
"The rebels targeted the palace but the shells landed just outside. There were no casualties," the AU's AMISOM force spokesman, Paddy Ankunda, told Reuters.
Some people living near Mogadishu's presidential compound said they would flee the city, alarmed by the fiercest heavy weapons fire in the downtown area since al Shabaab withdrew most of its forces to outlying areas last August.
The insurgents said on Monday they would keep hitting the presidential compound, which also houses key government ministries, with mortars and suicide bombings.
A salvo of mortars on Sunday night killed at least five refugees from a single family [ID:nL6E8EJ0OO], less than a week after a suicide bomber blew himself up outside the gate of Villa Somalia, as the presidential palace is known.
AMISOM says it is not clear where the short-range mortars aimed at Villa Somalia being fired from. The heavily protected complex is normally considered beyond the range of mortars launched from outside the Somali capital.
AMISOM said the militants also briefly attacked government troop positions in Mogadishu's southern suburbs, near a roadblock known as Ex-control set up on one of the main roads into the city centre. The peacekeepers reported no casualties.
Al Shabaab has been under pressure since withdrawing from most of its bases in Mogadishu and after Kenyan and Ethiopian forces launched attacks against the militants in central and southern Somalia since late last year.
Writing by Yara Bayoumy and Richard Lough