MOGADISHU (Reuters) - A pro-government militia in Somalia executed a commander from the al Shabaab rebel group in public on Sunday, ramping up the stakes in battles for central regions of the failed Horn of Africa state.
The Ahlu Sunna Waljamaca militia, which is aligned with Somalia's weak Western-backed government, has been fighting al Shabaab insurgents in central Galagadud region. The United States says al Shabaab is al Qaeda's proxy in the country.
Ahlu Sunna's spokesman said it had captured many rebels during clashes last week around Galgadud's capital Dusamareb, including the commander who was sentenced to die by firing squad after he refused to renounce al Shabaab's hardline ideology.
"We don't normally kill al Shabaab members. We arrest them and make them understand that Islam means peace. We have detained and then released many of them," the spokesman, Sheikh Abdullahi Sheikh Abu Yusuf, told Reuters by telephone.
"This commander insisted that all people were infidels except his group ... We will execute al Shabaab members who insist that it can be right to kill the innocent. What else are we supposed to do to those who believe they will go to paradise for killing us and the whole human race?"
Al Shabaab and another rebel group, Hizbul Islam, want to impose a harsh version of sharia law across the nation, and have previously carried out executions, stonings and amputations in southern and central regions under their control.
Sunday's was the first known execution by Ahlu Sunna Waljamaca. It came as residents said Somali government troops and Ahlu Sunna fighters also battled Hizbul Islam insurgents for hours for control of another strategic central town, Baladwayne.
The rebels want to extend their area of control from the south towards the pro-government northeast region of Puntland. The U.N.-backed administration of President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed controls just a few blocks of the coastal capital Mogadishu.
Fighting has killed 19,000 Somalis and driven 1.5 million from their homes since the start of 2007, and Western security agencies say the country has become a safe haven for militants, including foreign jihadists, who use it to plot attacks.