(Adds Hizbul Islam spokesman, paragraphs 9-10)
By Mohamed Ahmed and Abdi Sheikh
MOGADISHU (Reuters) - Somalia’s al Shabaab rebels said on Wednesday they would fight rival Hizbul Islam militants for control of the port of Kismayu, a lucrative source of taxes and other income for the Islamist fighters.
Residents said al Shabaab insurgents, who are also battling the fragile U.N.-backed government in the failed Horn of Africa state, had started digging trenches in the southern port.
Western security analysts say Somalia has become a safe haven for militants, including foreign jihadists, and Washington accuses al Shabaab of being al Qaeda’s proxy in the country.
Relations between al Shabaab and one-time allies Hizbul Islam degenerated last week after al Shabaab named its own local council to run Kismayu, excluding Hizbul members. Until then, the two groups had run the port in an uneasy coalition.
Last Thursday, a Hizbul leader said they would not recognise the new administration, and both sides rushed in reinforcements.
“We have decided to fight the group that invaded our town. It is jihad,” Sheikh Hassan Yaqub, the al Shabaab spokesman, told reporters in Kismayu.
“This group has brought back all the evil acts we banned: killing, looting, drugs, unveiled women. Instead of fighting the infidels ... they came to destroy our Islamic authority.”
The prospect of al Shabaab and Hizbul Islam fighting each other in the south raised the possibility of clashes between their gunmen in the capital Mogadishu, where they have battled together against the government and African Union peacekeepers.
“We will fight al Shabaab everywhere in Somalia if they so much as fire a pistol in Kismayu,” Sheikh Ismail Adow, spokesman for Hizbul’s executive council, told reporters in Mogadishu.
“They wanted us to surrender, but we shall never yield ... we want peace, unlike al Shabaab, which declared war. We ask them to leave us. If they don’t, we will force them to do so.”
Hundreds of residents fled Kismayu on Wednesday, fearing more bloodshed, and schools and businesses were shuttered.
Xawa Ahmed, a mother of six, said everyone was scared.
“We are searching for a safe place with our young kids. We have gathered about 30 families and we are preparing to go to the bush,” she told Reuters by telephone.
The international community wants to bolster President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed’s government, which controls only parts of the nation’s central region and a few districts of Mogadishu.
Al Shabaab’s Yaqub said Kismayu residents should not hesitate: “They should follow us and join the jihad. Otherwise, let them join Hizbul Islam and we will fight them all.
On Wednesday, the independent Mogadishu-based Elman Peace and Human Rights Organisation said violence in Somalia had killed nearly 19,000 civilians since the start of 2007 and driven another 1.5 million from their homes.
“More people are expected to flee from Kismayu and Hiran region. Somalia faces the worst humanitarian situation,” Yasin Ali Gedi, the group’s vice-chairman, told Reuters.
Additional reporting by Abdi Guled in Mogadishu and Sahra Abdi in Nairobi; Writing by Daniel Wallis; Editing by Janet Lawrence