Islamist insurgents closed in on Somalia’s coastal capital after seizing another strategic town north of Mogadishu on Monday. President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed’s forces control only parts of the city and central region after two weeks of fighting. Human rights workers in the Horn of Africa nation say the clashes have killed at least 172 civilians and wounded 528.

ISLAMISTHardline al Shabaab rebels seized Jowhar on Sunday and witnesses said hundreds of gunmen from another insurgent group — Hizbul Islam — marched into nearby Mahaday on Monday and took control without firing a shot. “We have captured the town peacefully,” Hassan Mahdi, Hizbul Islam’s spokesman, said by telephone.

Ahmed’s U.N.-backed administration is the 15th attempt to set up central rule in Somalia, which has been in anarchy for 18 years. Neighbouring states and Western security forces fear the country could become a haven for al Qaeda-linked extremists.Jowhar, 90 km (56 miles) from Mogadishu, is Ahmed’s hometown and links the capital to Somalia’s volatile central region. Mahaday is 23 km (14 miles) north of Jowhar.

“Masked Islamists are on the streets,” resident Fatima Hussein told Reuters. “They are not speaking to anyone … there was no fighting, the pro-government forces left last night.”



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