MOGADISHU A former Islamist warlord was declared president of Somalia's southern region on Wednesday, something likely to upset the government in Mogadishu as it tries to assert its authority.
Although Ahmed Madobe, leader of powerful Ras Kamboni militia, fought against the al Qaeda-linked militants that tried to seize control of the country, he is not viewed favourably by the central government.
Hours after the constitutional assembly in the volatile Jubaland region elected Madobe president, a rival warlord who is widely seen to be backed by Mogadishu, Barre Hirale, declared himself to be the president.
Madobe and Hirale are backed by rival clans competing for control of the strategically important port city of Kismayu.
"There is a risk that Somalia will be split along clan lines," said one Western diplomat, who expressed concern that the al Qaeda-linked al Shabaab may benefit from any clashes between rival militias.
"As we get closer to building a federal state in Somalia, we actually risk it disintegrating," the diplomat said.
Madobe was a former governor of Kismayu during an administration that was routed by Ethiopian forces sent into Somalia between 2006-2009 with tacit U.S. backing.
His Ras Kamboni militia has fought alongside Kenyan troops over the past year, flushing al Shabaab out of their strongholds in the south.
Ras Kamboni has been unwilling to cede to the central government control over Kismayu where rival warlords fight to be able to tax charcoal exports to Gulf states and levy duty on imported contraband, including weapons, sugar and electronics.
"These two 'presidents' of Jubaland are both warlords who are actually proxies for Kenya and Somalia. We could be on a precipice of clan warfare, if not regional conflict," said a regional intelligence source.
The government did not comment on the election but Abdirahman Mohamud Farole, president of Puntland, another semi-autonomous region which has a fractious relationship with Mogadishu, congratulated Madobe on his election.
(Editing by Robin Pomeroy)