Rival Islamist rebels battled in southern Somalia's Kismayu port on Thursday, killing at least nine people and the fighting threatened to spread to other parts of the failed Horn of Africa state.
Witnesses said al Shabaab gunmen and their one-time allies from Hizbul Islam attacked each other at dawn. Hundreds of terrified civilians fled, while others cowered in their homes.
"The battle has started everywhere in the city. There are heavy exchanges of bullets and we can see militia taking part in the fighting," resident Deqo Ali told Reuters by telephone.
Abdi Hallane, another local man, said he could see the bodies of six dead gunmen lying outside his home. Abdullahi Ali, a nurse, said at least three other people had been killed.
"They are using heavy weapons everywhere," he said from the hospital, adding that at least 15 civilians were wounded.
The Kismayu confrontation had been brewing for days, and Hizbul Islam leaders had threatened to fight al Shabaab "everywhere" in Somalia if clashes began at the rebel-held port, which is a lucrative source of taxes and other income.
Security analysts say Somalia has become a safe haven for militants, including foreign jihadists, and Washington says al Shabaab is al Qaeda's proxy in the country.
Relations between al Shabaab and Hizbul Islam degenerated last week after al Shabaab named its own council to run Kismayu, excluding all Hizbul members. Until then, the two groups had run the port in an uneasy coalition.
Western donors have long hoped hardliners in al Shabaab could be isolated by a deal between more moderate Hizbul leaders and the fragile U.N.-backed administration that could bring some stability to Somalia after nearly two decades of anarchy.
Clashes to spread?
President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed has so far failed to lure top Hizbul Islam figures to his side, but a feud between the two rebel groups could give his government some breathing space.
The fighting between al Shabaab and Hizbul Islam in the south raised the possibility of clashes between their gunmen in the capital Mogadishu, where they have battled together against Ahmed's administration and African Union peacekeepers.
One senior Hizbul Islam commander in Kismayu, Sheikh Ahmed Islam, told Reuters that Thursday's clashes broke out after al Shabaab gunmen attacked his group's positions.
An al Shabaab spokesman said their forces would prevail.
"We will drive Hizbul Islam out of town within hours," the spokesman, Sheikh Hassan Yaqub, told reporters at the port.
Fighting in Somalia has killed nearly 19,000 civilians since the start of 2007 and driven 1.5 million from their homes.
Maryam Maalin, a single mother-of-four in Kismayu's Alenlay district, said Thursday's fighting made it impossible to flee.
"They are firing in front of my home. We have nothing to eat and we are scared for our lives. If I could get a chance to run, I would take my young kids and go," she told Reuters by phone.