A cloud of uncertainty hangs over the fate of the leader of Hizbu Islam (Islamic Party) Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys following a violent confrontation at Wabho village, 400km north of Mogadishu.
Whereas some reports said that Sheikh Aweys, who is strongly opposed to the Transitional Federation Government (TFG), had been killed, others said he had survived the battle, though with serious injuries.
A spokesman for the moderate Islamist group, Ahlu Sunna wal-Jamea, Sheikh Ali Ahmed, claimed that his forces wounded the leader of Hizbu Islam in the fierce confrontation on Friday.
“Sheikh Aweys was being treated at Red Crescent medical facility in Eel-Bur town,” added Sheikh Ali.
Hit on the head
Eel-Bur is situated 80km east of Wabho village.
Another Ahlu Sunna wal-Jamea follower in Central Somalia, Aden Abdi Nur, insisted that the Hizbu Islam leader was hit on the head.
“Government ban on flights to Islamist-controlled areas prevented immediate medical response to Sheikh Awey’s situation,” said Mr Nur.
However, the spokesman of Hizbu Islam, Sheikh Hassan Mahdi, dismissed the claims by the Ahlu Sunna wal-Jamea officials.
“Such claims are baseless,” said Sheikh Mahdi.
“Sheikh Aweys is fit and well and is based in Mogadishu,” added Sheikh Mahdi.
However, Sheikh Aweys himself was unavailable to comment on any inquiries about his state, fuelling speculation that he was either dead, or seriously wounded.
There was no independent confirmation of the reports by either of the warring factions.
Somali Islamists generally operate with utmost secrecy.
The Ahlu Sunna wal-Jamea, a moderate sect that is allied to the TFG in Somalia, has been battling an alliance of opposition fighters from Al-Shabaab movement and Hizbu Islam at Wabho village in Galgadud region in Central Somalia for the past weeks.
Reports from local people indicated that on Friday and Saturday, more than 100 people died during violent confrontations.
The dead included combatants and unarmed civilians.
Sheikh Aweys is on US and UN terrorism lists.
If true, Sheikh Aweys’ death would be a major blow to the Islamist rebels and a boost for President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed’s Western-backed government, which had tried unsuccessfully to broker peace talks with the 62-year-old cleric.
Sheikh Aweys, whom western security services say is close to Al-Qaeda, is a father figure to the insurgents in Somalia, where he has headed various Islamist groups since the 1990s.
“We understand that Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys was brought yesterday to his brother’s house,” a family member, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters.
“We were denied access but confirmed there were doctors in the area ... The mood looks like he is dead. The whole area is surrounded by gunmen and there is no access,” he added, of the house close to Mogadishu’s football stadium.
There were also rumours among militia fighters that another rebel leader, Sheikh Hassan Abdullah Hersi al-Turki, was among the 123 combatants who died in the fighting around Wabho.
An Islamist insurgency since early 2007, the latest cycle in 19 years of conflict in the Horn of Africa nation, has killed around 18,000 civilians and thousands more fighters.
It has also drawn foreign jihadists into Somalia, enabled piracy to flourish offshore and unsettled the whole of East Africa, with neighbours Kenya and Ethiopia on high alert.
“The police car was driving at high speed and the bomb missed it and struck a civilian car which was behind the police car,” witness Abdullahi Farah Nor told Reuters.
In another development, a journalist, Mr Mukhtar Mohamed Hirabe, 48, was killed today in Mogadishu.
Mr Hirabe was the director of Shabelle Media.
The programme officer for the same media organisation, Mr Ahmed Omar Hashi alias Ahmed Tajir, was injured in the same incident.
The death that occurred at Bakara market in Mogadishu was confirmed by the news editor of Shabelle Media, Mr Abdurahman Yusuf Sheikh alias Al-Adala.
Mr Tajir was rushed to hospital.
“I only saw some young men firing at Mr Hirabe,” said Mr Tajir from his bed in hospital.
“I later saw a young man firing at the director’s head at very close range,” he added.
Mr Hirabe’s predecessor, Mr Bashir Nur Ghedi, was also killed by gunmen.
Two reporters and two media directors have so far been killed in Southern Somalia this year.
Somalia remains one of the most dangerous places for journalists to operate in.
(Additional reporting by Reuters)