Pirates flee as Somali militants move into pirate town; development could upend piracy trade

MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP) — Dozens of fighters from one of Somalia's most powerful rebel groups moved into a northern town Sunday where pirates operate, sending the pirates fleeing in a development that could upend the piracy trade, witnesses said.

Fighters from the militia group Hizbul Islam moved into the strategic pirate den of Haradhere. The Islamists could be looking to take over the trade or simply take a cut of the millions of dollars in ransom that pirates take in. Hizbul Islam is also likely to gain a foothold in Haradhere before the rival militant group al-Shabab moves in.

Any mixing of the pirate trade and the more dangerous Islamist insurgency has major implications for the 300-plus foreign hostages the pirates now hold and on international shipping companies' future ability to pay the pirates ransom. If militants take over the piracy trade, such ransom payments would end up in the hands of terror groups.

"Around 200 heavily armed militants with 14 vehicles mounted with guns moved into our town early this morning and took up strategic positions, such as the police station and some former government premises," resident Aden Jim'ale told The Associated Press by telephone.

Mohamed Abdi Aros, Hizbul Islam's head of operations, confirmed that his fighters had entered the town. He claimed that locals had requested that they enter to provide security. Militants al-Shabab, Somalia's most dangerous rebel group, sent scouts into the town earlier this month.

"Two days ago Hizbul Islam sent agents to the coastal towns saying they wished to move into the area before al-Shabab and demanded a slice of the business, but the pirate leaders ignored the request. That is why they moved in today," said Abdiwali Gadid, a self-proclaimed pirate.

Hundreds of pirates could be seen leaving the town hours before the militia moved in, using luxury cars and trucks to carry away TVs, generators and mattresses.

"Hundreds of the town's well-known pirates in luxury cars had fled from the town toward nearby Hobyo," said resident Suleyman Mumin.

Hizbul Islam lost a major source of revenue when it was kicked out of the southern port town of Kismayo by al-Shabab. Militants levy taxes on the port trade in Kismayo.

Islamic insurgents control much of Mogadishu and have been trying to topple the fragile government for three years. Somalia has not had an effective government for nearly 20 years.

On Saturday two bombs ripped through a mosque in Mogadishu, killing at least 32 people and wounding dozens. Officials said that on Sunday the death toll had risen to 46.