The threat of the kind of clan fighting that tore Somalia apart over two decades has hung over the city of Kismayu since Ahmed Madobe, leader of the Ras Kamboni militia, was chosen by a regional assembly in May to lead Jubaland and its port.
Dozens of people have been killed in sporadic fighting since then between backers of Madobe and a rival claimant to the leadership, Barre Hirale, who is widely seen as having the backing of the federal government in Mogadishu.
“From our side, five have died and 20 others were injured,” Ibrahim Saiid, a commander in a militia backing Hirale, said by telephone, adding that the Ras Kamboni militia behind Madobi had also suffered an unknown number of casualties.
Other witnesses confirmed the clashes which erupted on Friday and extended into Saturday, but there was no official death toll.
Poor communications to the city made it difficult to obtain a casualty count on Madobe’s side.
Worried that the clashes could spread and undermine fragile security gains secured by African peacekeepers in the battered nation, the United Nations called for an immediate halt to fighting and said talks should resolve the dispute.
“At the same time as this new fighting has broken out, contacts are underway to put together an inclusive process to defuse tensions,” the top U.N. diplomat in Somalia, Nicholas Kay, said in a statement, adding that fighting would entrench positions and “make it all the harder to achieve a settlement”.
Witnesses said Kenyan troops, part of the African Union peacekeeping force, had been deploying along a vital road in Kismayu on an apparent mission to halt the fighting.
Senior diplomats earlier told Reuters the Mogadishu government was expected to accept Madobe as the regional leader but on an interim basis. The government has said it is ready to compromise but has not said whom it would back to hold the post.
What happens in Kismayu is seen as a vital test of the skill of the new government in Mogadishu, in place for less than a year, in building a federation in a nation torn by war, deep clan rivalries and breakaway regions.
Regional and Western powers worry that a slide back into conflict would hand an opportunity to al Shabaab Islamist militants to regroup and regain more territory.
African troops led a campaign that drove the militants out of major centers, although al Shabaab still controls swathes of countryside.
That means the leader of Kismayu and Jubaland would in reality only control the port and its immediate surroundings.