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Veteran Somali Islamist leader Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys has fled former comrades in the Al-Qaeda linked Shebab, officials said Wednesday, the most visible sign yet of splits in the long-running insurgency.
Aweys, on both United States and UN Security Council terrorism sanctions lists, has sought shelter in the central Somali province of Himan and Heeb, after clashes with top Shebab commander Ahmed Abdi Godane.
"It looks like he escaped attacks by Al-Shebab," said Mohamed Omar Hagafey, Himan and Heeb spokesman, adding he was due to appear in the region's main town of Adado "escorted by the local authorities".
Initial reports suggested he was not being held against his will.
Himan and Heeb, an autonomous region best known for its pirate and kidnap gangs, is not controlled by Mogadishu's internationally-backed government.
Aweys' forces have been allied with Shebab troops since 2010, but he has been in outspoken opposition to Godane's leadership for more than a year.
But the septuagenarian influential cleric -- listed on UN sanctions lists as aged 78 -- is more of a spiritual figurehead than an active commander, and his split alone is likely to have little if any impact on the operational capacity of the Shebab.
A wily but outspoken strategist, Aweys was a top leader of the Islamic Courts Union, a radical group that ruled Somalia in 2006 before being overthrown by Ethiopian troops who stormed Somalia in a US-backed invasion.
A respected former army colonel who fought in the 1977-78 Ethiopia-Somali war, he later commanded the Al-Itihaad al-Islamiya and Hizb al-Islam forces, before allying his gunmen with the Shebab three years ago in a common fight to overthrow the government.
Aweys, who has recently been based in the southern port of Barawe, one of the few towns left in Shebab hands, reportedly fled after clashes broke out between troops loyal to him and those of Godane, the main Shebab leader.
Aweys has reportedly been aligned with a rival Shebab faction led by Afghan-trained leader Mukhtar Robow.
Washington has offered multi-million dollar bounties for several top leaders, including $7 million for Godane and $5 million for Robow, but has offered no reward for Aweys.
However, US sanctions lists in 2001 named him as a supporter of terrorism.