By Abdi Sheikh
MOGADISHU (Reuters) - Dozens of people were feared killed in two days of fierce fighting for control of a strategic Somali port city, according to witness and militia accounts on Saturday, despite efforts to prevent the clashes escalating into broader clan warfare.
Scores have died in sporadic fighting in Kismayu since Ahmed Madobe, leader of the Ras Kamboni militia, was chosen by a regional assembly to lead Somalia's southern Jubaland region, where the port is located.
The conflict between Madobe's supporters and a rival claimant to the leadership, Barre Hirale, widely seen as backed by the federal government in Mogadishu, has raised the prospect of a return of the kind of clan fighting that tore Somalia apart more than two decades ago.
A shopkeeper, Bile Mohamed, speaking to Reuters by telephone from central Kismayu, said he had counted nine dead bodies on a road, although he said shooting had stopped.
Hussein Ali, from another area of Kismayu, said he saw 12 corpses.
"I am afraid scores died in the alleys and inside houses," said Ali, speaking from the area that he said had been a stronghold of Hirale. He also said fighting had ended.
Hirale, who also spoke to Reuters by telephone, said he believed at least 50 fighters and civilians had been killed, while five people were injured in his home by shells.
Poor communications and the dangers of going outside made it impossible to ascertain the true death toll.
Worried that fighting could undermine fragile security gains secured by African peacekeepers, the United Nations called for talks.
"At the same time as this new fighting has broken out, contacts are under way to put together an inclusive process to defuse tensions," the top U.N. diplomat in Somalia, Nicholas Kay, said in a statement.
The fighting would entrench positions and "make it all the harder to achieve a settlement," Kay said.
Witnesses said Kenyan troops, part of the African Union peacekeeping force, had been deployed to the port. Hirale said Kenya, seen by many as close to Madobe, had intervened to push his forces back.
Nairobi acknowledges no such allegiance. It was not immediately possible to obtain comment from the Kenyan forces on the ground in Jubaland.
The African Union, which leads the peacekeeping force AMISOM, said the fighting "only serves to complicate and disrupt the process of stabilising Somalia".
In a statement issued during the fighting on Saturday, Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud called on AU forces in Kismayu to "be neutral in the fighting between the groups" and to place themselves between the two sides to end the shooting.
What happens in Kismayu is a test of the skill of Mogadishu's new government, in place for less than a year, in building a federation in a nation torn by war, deep clan rivalries and separatism.
Regional and Western powers worry a slide back into conflict would hand an opportunity to al Shabaab Islamist militants to regroup and regain more territory.
African troops led a campaign that drove the militants out of major centers, although al Shabaab still controls swathes of countryside.
(Writing by Edmund Blair, editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)