A clan leader denied that al-Shabab had successfully taken the port, but that his troops had rather made a tactical withdrawal.

Side by side

Al-Shabab, fighting as part of the Islamic Courts Union, was driven out of Kismayu in early 2007 after Ethiopian forces rolled into Somalia to back the interim government in the fight to take control of much of central and southern Somalia.

"This is the first time in almost two years that Somalia's Islamic Court Union and al-Shabab are fighting side by side," Adow said.

"They also feel al-Shabab are fighting the same enemy despite the different ideologies they have," Adow said.

Al-Shabab was the military wing of the Islamic Courts Union and credited with winning military victories for the union, particularly in Mogadishu.

However, the group split from the union. It regards the ICU as more secular and willing to talk to the interim government. Al-Shabab has taken the stance that it will not negotiate with the interim government until Ethiopian troops are out of the country.

Worsening violence

"The leadership of Kismayu has changed hands nearly 30 times since the civil war in Somalia," Adow reported.

"The city has been fought over mainly because of its strategic location.

"It is one of the biggest ports in Somalia and is known as a bread basket for the country because of its agriculture."

Sahra Haji Ahmed, a resident, said al-Shabab forces were in the city centre and the sound of gunshots could be heard coming from only one area of the city.

At least 6,000 civilians have died in Somalia in the past year alone.

Somalia has lacked an effective government since Siad Barre, Somalia's former president, was ousted.

Barre's removal touched off a deadly power struggle that has defied more than 14 attempts to stabilise the country of about 10 million people.