MOGADISHU (Reuters) - A group loyal to Islamic State seized a small port town in Somalia's semi-autonomous Puntland region on Wednesday, a move officials said gave it control of a town for the first time since it emerged as a force a year ago.
Islamic State, a rival to the larger al Qaeda-linked al Shabaab, seized Qandala port after a brief fight with local security forces. African peacekeepers are not deployed in Puntland, at the eastern tip of the Horn of Africa.
Islamic State, also known as Daesh, seized Qandala port after a short fight with Puntland forces.
"Qandala town fell into the hands of Daesh (Islamic State)this morning. Our soldiers were few and so could not fight longer," district commissioner Jamac Mohamed Khuurshe said.
Soldiers and many residents have fled and Islamic State had cut off Qandala's communications, he told Reuters.
Somalia's federal government and regional authorities have long battled an Islamist insurgency by al Shabaab, which once controlled much of Somalia.
Earlier on Wednesday, al Shabaab seized a town in southern Somalia after African troops and Somali government troops withdrew, part of an ongoing back and forth between the two sides in which territory is often taken and lost.
Islamic State has been gathering recruits in Puntland, although experts say the scale of its force is unclear and it remains a small player compared to al Shabaab.
Before Islamic State cut off the phone lines to Qandala, fisherman Abdirahman Hussein told Reuters of its arrival in the port town. "We just saw Daesh with their black banner as we were fishing. They said to us: 'Do not panic we will rule you according to the Islamic sharia (law)'," he said.
"It is the first time Islamic State captures a town," said Major Saiid Ali, a Puntland police officer, adding the Islamic State force had entered two small villages briefly in the past but had quickly retreated to hideouts in the Puntland hills.
The Puntland Islamist group first announced its alignment to Islamic State a year ago, making a declaration on YouTube.
The group is led by Abdiqadir Mumin, a former al Shabaab commander, reflecting a splintering in some al Shabaab ranks by those who had seen al Qaeda as a spent force and were inspired by what had been Islamic State's gains in Iraq and Syria. In the past year, Islamic State has been squeezed in the Middle East.
Several groups beyond Islamic State's Middle East heartland have made similar declarations of allegiance, although experts say links are unlikely to go much beyond ideological sympathies.
Al Shabaab has yet to make any comment on the group aligned to Islamic State.
The town Al Shabaab fighters seized early on Wednesday was Tiyeeglow district of southern Somalia. That gave them back control of an area over which the Islamists have long fought with the African Union's AMISOM force and Somali soldiers.
Ethiopian troops and the Somali army had withdrawn from the area. But Ethiopian government spokesman Getachew Reda said the Ethiopian troops were not part of its AMISOM contingent. He said any redeployment was done in consultation with Somali troops.
"We always try to make sure the Somali National Army is assisted in any way possible to fill the vacuum," he added in Addis Ababa.
Additional reporting by Abdiqani Hassan in Puntland, Aaron Maasho in Addis Ababa and Feisal Omar in Mogadishu; Writing by Edmund Blair and George Obulutsa; Editing by Tom Heneghan