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Somali town seized over taxes, not Islam-elders
By Aweys Yusuf
NAIROBI, 9 Dec 2007 - Somali clan leaders on Sunday said they want government troops back in a town seized over the weekend in what initially looked like an Islamist insurgent advance but turned out to be a local dispute over taxes.
Government forces fled Bule Burte, 220 km (140 miles) north of the Somali capital Mogadishu on Saturday, after what residents said was a quick battle with Islamist fighters. One person was wounded, witnesses said.
Islamist insurgents have fought back against the government and allied Ethiopian troops in the capital Mogadishu since they were ejected by them a year ago in a lightning war backed by U.S. intelligence.
Saturday's action raised the possibility that the insurgency was spreading, but elders from the Hawadle sub-clan of the Hawiye clan that inhabits the region said residents ejected the government troops.
"The people revolted against the government troops after they shot a civilian. Of course, some former Islamists were among the people who beat the troops," Hussein Hassan Dirow told Reuters by telephone from Bule Burte.
The elders are brokering negotiations between the government, which usually has about 300 troops around Bule Burte, and the group that took the town.
The clan and residents have been upset over high taxes imposed by the government's regional boss, Hiraan province Chairman Yusuf Ahmed Hagar, Dirow said.
"We want the government to return, but we do not want the chairman Yusuf Ahmed, because his administration is the worst," Dirow said.
Hagar's deputy, Abdi Hussein Gedi, said: "The town is still under the control of other people, and I do not want to comment on that issue now. But we are determined to do something as soon as possible."
On Saturday, an Islamist told residents his group was in control and would reimpose a strict version of Islamic sharia law. But the residents and elders denied anything much had changed, aside from who was patrolling the streets.
"The Islamists we know who controlled this town before the government are visible in the streets of Bule Burte today. The situation is calm," farmer Bashi Mohamed Hassan said.
The Islamists, before their defeat by the government and Ethiopian troops a year ago, had tried to impose sharia law across southern Somalia.
Though the core of the movement was organised out of Mogadishu -- where it remains active in a bloody insurgency against the government and Ethiopian troops -- a few groups elsewhere allied with them as they began winning territory.
Mired in anarchy since 1991, Somalia's myriad groups -- all armed -- routinely shift alliances, especially toward the winning side when it will allow them to maintain their turf and the money they generate from taxes extracted at gunpoint.
Somalia's interim government is struggling to impose national authority, missing since warlords plunged Somalia into anarchy in 1991 after ousting dictator Mohamed Siad Barre.
(Writing by Bryson Hull; editing by Mary Gabriel)