New clashes over key southern Somali port

At leat five people have been killed in clashes between rival Somali warlords fighting for control of the southern port city of Kismayo, residents said Saturday.

Gunmen from the Ras Kamboni militia of former Islamist warlord Ahmed Madobe -- who last month appointed himself "president" of the southern Jubaland region -- battled on Friday forces loyal to Bare Hirale, a former Somali defence minister who also leads a powerful militia.

"The fighting started again yesterday (Friday)in the afternoon and lasted until the evening," Hassan Omar, a Kismayo resident told AFP Saturday."I saw five dead bodies including a civilian."

"It was clan militia supporting Bare Hirale who clashed with Ras Kamboni and the fighting spread all over the city," Dahir Mohamed, another witness said, adding that militia loyal to Iftin Hassan Basto, another leader claiming to be president of Jubaland, were also involved.

Fighting on Thursday in Kismayo left at least seven dead.

A precarious calm had returned Saturday, residents said.

Several rival factions claim ownership of Kismayo, a former stronghold of the Al-Qaeda-linked Shebab, where Kenyan troops in an African Union force are now based.

Kenyan troops, who invaded Somalia in 2011, back Madobe's control of the strategic and economic hub, but neither the title of "president" nor the region of Jubaland is recognised by the weak central government in Mogadishu.

Two days of heavy fighting earlier this month -- between Madobe's forces and those of Iftin Hassan Basto -- left at least 31 dead, according to the UN's World Health Organisation.

The Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General (SRSG) for Somalia, Nicholas Kay, in a statement Saturday, called for an "immediate cessation of hostilities" and urged all parties "to refrain from any action which could be seen as a provocation."

Human Rights Watch this week warned that the rival factions in Kismayo have "showed little apparent regard for the safety of civilians around them", warning that in the clashes on June 7-8, mortar rounds or artillery shells reportedly smashed into crowded civilian neighbourhoods as well as a medical clinic.

Jubaland lies in the far south of Somalia and borders both Kenya and Ethiopia, and control is split between multiple forces including clan militia, the Shebab, Kenyan and Ethiopian soldiers.

Jubaland joins other semi-autonomous regions of the fractured Horn of Africa nation, including Puntland in the northeast -- which wants autonomy within a federation of states -- and Somaliland in the northwest which fiercely defends its self-declared independence.

Kenya views the region as a key buffer zone to protect its borders, but in Jubaland, it has ended up backing forces opposing the central government it is mandated -- and funded by the UN and European Union -- to support.