Mogadishu - Somalia's Shabaab militia on Monday played down the surrender and arrest of a senior militant figure, saying the official had left the movement more than a year ago.
The al-Qaeda-affiliated rebels said Zakariya Ismail Ahmed Hersi, identified as a top Shabaab intelligence official and the subject of a $3m bounty as part of the US State Department "Rewards for Justice" programme, would be of little intelligence value.
"He abandoned the organisation more than a year ago," a senior militant official told AFP, insisting that the "news of the defection was only released in order to shift attention" away from last week's Shabaab attack against the headquarters of the African Union force in the capital Mogadishu.
"All the information on military set up or plans he knew has been changed since he left, and therefore the so-called defector has no intelligence value to offer to our enemies," the Shabaab official said.
Splits and purges
He also said the surrender should not be seen as a weakening of the movement, which is fighting to topple Somalia's internationally-backed government.
According to Somali officials, Zakariya Ismail Ahmed Hersi gave himself up to government and AU troops on Saturday. He had been hiding out in the Gedo region, where Somalia borders Kenya and Ethiopia.
Officials said he had once been close to former Shabaab leader Ahmed Abdi Godane, who was killed by a US air strike in September, but that he may have been sidelined during a series of recent bloody splits and purges within the group carried out by Godane and his successor, Ahmad Umar Abu Ubaidah.
The Shebab emerged from the Islamic Courts Union that controlled Mogadishu in 2006 before being pushed out by Ethiopian forces.
The militants were finally driven from their fixed positions in Mogadishu in 2011, and have lost several strongholds in the south and centre of the country in a recent offensive by the AU's Amisom force. The group, however, still control vast rural areas.