Heavily armed Islamist militants on Sunday seized Somalia’s port town and major pirate hub of Harardhere, meeting no resistance as pirates fled before their arrival, residents said.
Militants from the Hezb Al-Islam group had been advancing on Harardhere, 500 kilometres north of the capital Mogadishu, over the past few weeks and entered without a fight.
“The pirates emptied the town this morning after getting the information that Islamist fighters were about to enter town. I saw heavily armed militants enter the town on around 10 armed vehicles,” Abdulkadir Hasan, an elder in Harardhere said.
“There was not fighting because the Islamists did not encounter any resistance.”
Harardhere is one of three major pirate hubs in Somalia. As of late April, pirates operating from the Somali coast were holding 23 foreign vessels and 384 sailors awaiting the payment of ransom, maritime watchdog Ecoterra says.
The residents said the only militants who entered the town Sunday were from Hezb Al-Islam. Fighters from another hardline Islamist group, the Al Qaeda-inspired Shebab, have in recent days advanced on villages close to the town.
Ahmed Hasan Tubey, another witness, said the Hezb Al-Islam fighters chanted “Allahu Akbar” (God is great) as they entered the port town.
“They entered the town chanting Allahu Akbar, and took control of the police station and other positions,” he said.
Somalia’s hardline Islamists, who long condoned piracy, turned against the pirates after they started targeting vessels owned by Somali businessmen that were bringing food into the country.
Late last month Sheikh Ali Mohamud Rage, a Shebab spokesman, said his group had previously seen the pirates as a positive force fighting illegal fishing off Somalia.
“But now they have interfered with Somali commercial interests by hijacking Somali vessels,” he said, adding: “We have decided to take immediate action against those gangs.”
But he insisted: “We will not be cooperating in any way with the foreign naval forces in the waters off Somalia that have ulterior motives.”
An international flotilla of warships has been patrolling waters off Somalia, one of the world’s busiest maritime routes, since 2008, in a bid to stop the hijackings.
Despite the patrols, Somali sea bandits operating in nimble skiffs and mother ships – from which the smaller boats take to the sea – have repeatedly managed to seize vessels for ransom.
The International Maritime Bureau (IMB) has reported a drop in the number of vessels hijacked in the first three months of 2010 compared to the same period last year.
Sixty-seven piracy incidents were reported since January compared to 102 in the first quarter of 2009, the Kuala Lumpur-based agency said in a report last month.