By Mohamed Ahmed
MOGADISHU (Reuters) - At least 27 people have been killed in heavy fighting near the border of two semi-autonomous regions of Somalia, witnesses said on the eve of a political conference to hammer out a road map toward elections in the chaotic country.
Puntland's security ministry said its forces had repelled a two-day attack by al Shabaab militants in the north of Galkayo town, which its troops control, and accused the authorities of the Galmudug region, who control the south of Galkayo, of harbouring the militants.
The latest clashes and escalation in rhetoric risk spilling over into the three-day political talks starting on Sunday, the first major nationwide conference to be held in war-battered Mogadishu in four years.
"The fighting erupted (on Thursday) after al Shabaab terrorists opened fire on Puntland security forces intending to arrest members of a terrorist cell who organize assassinations and bombings," the security ministry said in a statement.
Witnesses said the fighting had subsided early on Saturday but that bodies still lay strewn in the town's streets and tensions remained high.
"I myself counted 17 corpses," resident Abdikadir Ahmed told Reuters from Galkayo's Garsoor neighbourhood, where the fighting started.
A nurse said the town's main hospital had received more than 70 wounded fighters and civilians, of whom at least 10 had died on the operating table.
Puntland says there has been an escalation in guerrilla-style attacks on its territory since the al Qaeda-linked al Shabaab rebels began waging a bloody insurgency four years ago, bent on imposing an austere version of sharia (Islamic law) on Somalis.
"These crimes were planned and organised in the neighbourhood where (the) fighting erupted and in the neighbourhood of Galkayo where the Galmudug authority is based," the Puntland administration said.
"Al Shabaab terrorists have been escaping to the Galmudug side, where the terrorists reorganise and receive ammunitions and medical treatment," said the administration.
Galmudug's president, Mohamed Ahmed Ali, denied supporting al Shabaab or fighters allied to the militants.
"We do not support any side. We do not sell weapons. Two sub-clans of the same clan are fighting," Ali told Reuters. "Puntland has no excuse to indiscriminately shell innocent civilians."
Somalia has been mired in conflict and awash with weapons since the downfall of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre 20 years ago. It has become a haven for foreign jihadists bent on striking the region's main economies, security experts say.
A string of interim governments have run the country since 2004 but have failed to exert any real power beyond Mogadishu or achieve any tangible security gains outside the capital.
The Mogadishu conference is supposed to adopt a road map of political reconciliation and reform leading to the election of a new president in August 2012.
Separately, Djibouti plans to send about 700 troops to Somalia by the end of September to join the African Union peacekeeping force, a source familiar with the deployment said.
The Somali government has called for extra troops to secure Mogadishu after al Shabaab's withdrawal from the capital and to help it regain control of other rebel-held parts of the country.
A senior police officer said on Saturday local militia fighters, who had set up a roadblock in the capital to extort payments from taxi drivers, had killed four government troops after the soldiers attempted to detain them.
(Additional reporting by Adbi Sheikh and Abdourahim Arteh in Djibouti; Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Karolina Tagaris)