MOGADISHU (Reuters) - Islamic court militia seized a strategic town outside Mogadishu on Sunday, dislodging a member of the anti-terrorism warlord coalition in fierce fighting that left nine people dead, officials and residents said.
The town of Balad, 30 km (19 miles) north of Mogadishu, fell to the Islamic courts after two hours of intense battle.
"Balad is in our hands. The enemy has escaped from the town," said Islamic courts militia leader Moallim Hashi Mohamed, whose forces have been fighting those of warlord Muse Sudi Yalahow.
There was no immediate comment from Muse Sudi side, but witnesses reported seeing his forces heading toward Jowhar town.
Residents who emerged after the clash counted bodies.
"I saw seven bodies lying on the ground inside the town," said one resident. Another said he saw two bodies at a check point outside Balad.
The small town is strategic because it lies on the route connecting the capital to the fertile agriculture areas of Middle Shabelle and Lower Shabelle.
Residents said capturing Balad was the biggest victory for the Islamic courts since the start of the war between fighters loyal to clerics advocating strict sharia law and warlords who formed an anti-terror coalition many believe is funded by the United States.
Hundreds of people have died in a series of battles since the start of the year. Some Mogadishu residents say the violence is the worst they have seen in Somalia's troubled capital.
Washington has not commented on accusations it backed the warlords except to say it welcomed support in its declared war on terrorism.
Officials, meanwhile, said international and local aid workers based outside Mogadishu were leaving Somalia over fears the fighting would spread to other regions.
Islamic forces have now taken over the villages of El Iffid, Ali Yaale, Garas Bintow and a military camp of Hiilweyne, 7 km (4 miles) outside Balad town, witnesses said.
Residents said National Security Minister Mohamed Qanyare and his heavily armed forces left their base in Daynile in Mogadishu on Saturday night.
They were believed to have moved toward Balad to offer support to Muse Sudi, who is also the commerce minister in Somalia's transitional government.
Residents say the latest fighting has involved some of the worst violence ever seen in Mogadishu.