Mogadishu - One of Somalia's most prominent Islamist rebel commanders has been arrested and is in the hands of a regional administration, local and government officials said on Wednesday, dealing a blow to the country's al-Shabaab insurgents.
Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys was detained in a coastal area of central Somalia and had been taken to a safe-house in the town of Adado, said a spokesperson for the Somali Federal Government.
Aweys was "linked to terrorism" by the United States shortly after the 11 September, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington and is on a UN Security Council terrorism sanctions list.
The arrest of a man who has been a major player in many stages of Somalia's long insurgency would be a boost for a government and its African allies struggling to contain months of guerrilla-style attacks.
Diplomats suggested Aweys had fled a bout of in-fighting that indicated rifts in the group. Analysts said Mogadishu might be open to negotiate with Aweys, who they say backed a faction in al-Shabaab opposed to using foreign fighters.
Clan elders and the Adado administration, which is generally seen as friendly to Mogadishu, said negotiations were under way with the central government over what to do with Aweys.
"We are discussing how to solve the issue," said central government spokesman Abdirahman Omar Osman. "Our policy has always been that for those within al Shabaab who are Somalis and want to renounce violence, we are willing to lend a hand."
Adado resident Hassan Nur said the town was tense as militiamen and security forces loyal to the provincial Himan and Heeb administration sped around in pick-up trucks mounted with machineguns.
"Aweys and his men are now in Himan and Heeb palace in Adado town," Abdi Kadawe, Adado's police chief, told Reuters by phone.
Rashid Abdi, an independent Horn of Africa analyst, said Aweys' arrest would be a psychological blow but was unlikely to shift the power balance in al Shabaab, which has been weakened by an offensive led by African peacekeepers.
Aweys' influence had been "seriously diminished in recent years," Abdi told Reuters that
Aweys, a firebrand cleric believed to be in his late 70s, had been seen by many Somalis as the spiritual leader of al-Shabaab and had been revered by militants as the father of Somalia's Islamist movement.
In the 1990s, as the Horn of Africa country imploded after the overthrow of a dictator, Aweys was military commander of Somalia's largest militant Islamist group but suffered defeats in battles against Ethiopia and warlords backed by Addis Ababa.
Aweys helped found the Union of Islamic Courts that briefly controlled Mogadishu and most of Somalia in 2006 before it too was routed by Ethiopia, a nation long seen by the West as a bulwark against Islamist militancy in the region.
He fled to Eritrea but returned three years later as leader of Hizbul Islam to battle the transitional government led by a former comrade. But the more powerful al Shabaab forced Aweys to merge his group with theirs.
Inside al-Shabaab, Aweys became mired in a struggle between his faction that saw al-Shabaab as a nationalist insurgency and another that comprised foreign fighters that saw the group as fighting a global jihad.