Somali insurgents seize pirate haven
MOGADISHU (Reuters) - Somali insurgent group Hizbul Islam seized the pirate haven of Haradheere on Sunday without a fight and pledged to take control of more towns in the region, the rebel group said.
Haradheere, and Hobyo further up the coast, are two of the main bases for pirates operating out of Somalia. The gunmen have made tens of millions of dollars by hijacking merchant vessels, bringing them to the coast and demanding ransoms.
So far, neither Hizbul Islam nor al Qaeda-linked al Shabaab rebels have been directly involved in piracy, a business that has flourished in the absence of strong government and any rule of law in the Horn of Africa nation.
"Our Mujahideen fighters are in Haradheere now, they will cross into the other towns in the region," Sheikh Mohamed Osman Arus, Hizbul Islam spokesman, told Reuters.
He denied the group wanted to get involved in piracy.
Pirates in Haradheere, however, said Hizbul Islam sent agents to the coastal town demanding a slice of the business a few days ago, but the pirates refused.
"They came into the town, they want to have their own pirates in here and oust us," said a pirate called Hassan, who was fleeing the town, told Reuters.
"Some of their agents came to us two days ago and asked us to work with them and pay. We rejected this and they entered today," he said.
Hizbul Islam and al Shabaab have been fighting to topple the Western-backed government since the start of 2007. More than 21,000 civilians have been killed in the failed state since the start of the insurgency.
Andrew Mwangura, coordinator of the East African Seafarers' Assistance Programme, said there were three hijacked vessels being held at Haradheere at the moment, the UBT Ocean, MV Rak Afrikana and the Sakoba.
Islamist fighters with the Islamic Courts Union, a movement that briefly ruled the capital Mogadishu in 2006 before being ousted by Ethiopian soldiers, clamped down on Somali piracy as they tried to impose law and order.
"But I'm afraid this time around it might put the lives of the hostages in danger," Mwangura told Reuters.
Some residents said they feared Haradheere would now become a battleground if the pro-government moderate Sufi Muslim group Ahlu Sunna Waljamaca came to fight Hizbul Islam.
(Writing by David Clarke; editing by Philippa Fletcher)