12 die as Somali leadership is racked by factional fighting

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More than a dozen people were killed in a series of clashes at the town of Baidoa, where the transitional federal government has set up headquarters, and the violence looked set to escalate.

The President, Abdullahi Yusuf, was bringing in fighters from his clan, based in the semi-autonomous region of Puntland. His rivals were also calling up reinforcements. United Nations staff were among those barricaded in a compound in Baidoa, with all flights to the town suspended.

Although the transitional government has international backing as the legitimate power in Somalia, it cannot get into the capital, Mogadishu, which is now controlled by Islamist militias. And while the would-be leaders were embroiled in feuding yesterday, Mogadishu appeared to be relatively calm.

Residents were venturing out into the streets in increasing numbers after months of fierce fighting between the Islamists and American-backed warlords, which left hundreds killed and injured and thousands fleeing their homes. The warlords' forces have retreated to Jowhar, pursued by the Islamists, whose capture of the town would put them in effective control of southern Somalia.

The US administration has been wracked by internal dissent over the policy of supporting the warlords - the same people responsible for the humiliating American withdrawal from Somalia 13 years ago, chronicled inBlack Hawk Down. Washington has now invited other countries to take part in a strategy summit.

At the same time the State Department has started to take a more emollient attitude towards the Islamists, saying not all the factions who make up their alliance are extremists. But America's Somalia policy has been largely run by the CIA and the Pentagon. Officials are reported to have arrived at airstrips controlled by the warlords with hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash.

The comprehensive defeat of the warlords in Mogadishu, and the seemingly popular backing for the Islamists, have led to renewed questioning of Washington's judgment. "At this point it is Ground Zero for US policy in Somalia," said John Prendergast, a senior adviser with the International Crisis Group. "It's almost a stunning blow across the board to everything the US was trying to do."