MOGADISHU, Somalia — Somalia's government called for a neutral force in the disputed port city of Kismayo, accusing Kenyan troops there of backing one militia against others in ongoing fighting for control of the strategic southern city.
Somalia's information ministry said late Sunday that the country wants a "more neutral force" in the city that is home to a contingent of militiamen and where five clan leaders have all declared themselves president. That statement is the strongest yet from a government whose officials have sometimes accused Kenyan forces of taking sides in the Kismayo conflict, charges that Kenya denied on Monday.
"Kenya is there...to promote security and the rebuilding of Somalia," said Kenyan army spokesman Col. Cyrus Oguna. "Those allegations are false and do not have any foundation whatsoever."
For weeks militias have been fighting for control of Kismayo in clashes that have killed an unknown number of people.
Catherine Ashton, the European Union foreign policy chief, said in a statement Monday that the fighting in Kismayo "appears to have caused the loss of innocent civilian lives." She urged "all parties to immediately refrain from violence, exercise restraint, and let political processes be used to resolve outstanding differences."
Mohamed Nur, a nurse at Kismayo hospital, said at least eight people had died there following the latest clashes.
Kismayo is important for Kenya, which seeks a friendly buffer zone near its border with Somalia – one of the main reasons it sent troops to Somalia to fight the militants of al-Qaida-linked al-Shabab in late 2011. But the rival militias now at war there appear to be interested in the economic engine of Kismayo. Its port generates large and reliable income, and has been the export point of Somali-made charcoal made illegal by the U.N.
After another round of intense fighting on Sunday it appears that fighters from the Kenya-backed Raskamboni brigade, led by Ahmed Madobe, had taken the upper hand over rival militias led by former warlord Barre Hirale, according to several Kismayo residents. That brigade did so with the help of Kenyan troops operating in Kismayo under the banner of the African Union, according to Abdishakur Ali Mire, Somalia's deputy information minister.
Madobe, who is supported by Kenya, is the leader of the Raskamboni brigade, which fought alongside Kenyan forces who took Kismayo from al-Shabab. He is a key power broker around Kismayo, although he is not backed by the federal government in the capital, Mogadishu. Madobe formed a local administration without giving much of a role to the central Somali government and was named president of the body. Adding to the chaos, four other clan leaders also have declared themselves the president of the region, though none is supported by Mogadishu.
The statement by Mire, the Somali government minister, accused AMISOM Section Two _a contingent of African Union forces operating in Kismayo_ of launching "a targeted offensive against civilians" and of arresting Col. Abbas Ibrahim Gure, a Somali army official sent to Kismayo by the central government.
Troops from the West African nation of Sierra Leone are part of the contingent that includes the Kenyans, but they are not involved in ongoing fighting, according to Somali government officials.
Some analysts say fighting in Kismayo is distracting from the main goal of fighting al-Shabab, who still launch lethal terrorist attacks even in Mogadishu.
"It's a dangerous distraction for the effort to fight al-Shabab not only for the government but for AMISOM," said Mohamed Sheikh Abdi, an independent political analyst in Mogadishu.
Associated Press writer Tom Odula in Nairobi, Kenya, contributed to this report.