By Abdi Sheikh
MOGADISHU (Reuters) -Fighters from Somalia's al Shabaab militant group attacked a town north of the capital, Mogadishu, on Thursday, killing at least seven people as they battled government security forces, a resident and police said.
The attack happened amid a political dispute between Somalia’s president and prime minister which its international partners worry has distracted the government from the fight against the insurgents.
Police and residents in Balad, 30 km (18 miles) north of Mogadishu, said fighters from the al Qaeda-linked group attacked and overran government forces guarding a bridge at a town entrance early in the morning.
"We were in a mosque praying when a heavy exchange of gunfire took place at the bridge. Al Shabaab thus captured the town, overrunning the soldiers at the bridge," Hassan Nur, a shopkeeper in Balad, an agricultural town that links Somalia's Middle Shabelle region to Lower Shabelle, told Reuters by telephone.
"There were few police forces in the town. (The police) were missing. When the firing started people ran into their houses. I counted five dead soldiers and two civilian women," he said.
Police captain Farah Ali said the fighters stayed briefly in the town after the attack but then left.
"Al Shabaab did not come to our station but captured the entire town in the fighting and left without patrolling," he told Reuters.
"I understand there are about eight people dead including soldiers."
Al Shabaab aims to topple the government and impose a strict version of Islamic law. It often carries out bomb attacks on government targets but also on civilians. It also targets African Union peacekeeping troops.
Somalia, which has had only limited central government since 1991, is trying to reconstruct itself with the help of the United Nations.
The United Nations and various countries have urged its prime minister, Mohammed Hussein Roble, and President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed to settle their dispute, which has raised fears of conflict.
The president on Monday tried to suspend the prime minister's powers for suspected corruption. The prime minister described the move as a coup attempt and he asked all security forces to take orders from his office, not the president.
(Reporting by Abdi Sheikh; Writing by George Obulutsa; Editing by Alexandra Zavis and Robert Birsel)