Somali Islamist fighters today beheaded seven prisoners accused of abandoning the Muslim faith and spying for the government.
It was the largest mass execution since the Islamists were pushed from power two and a half years ago.
The public killings in the southwestern town of Baidoa followed weeks of fierce fighting as the Islamists try to seize Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, amid mounting concerns about the influx of hundreds of foreign fighters to the state.
The beheadings may be linked to the Islamists’ failure to take Mogadishu after a two-month-old offensive, said a senior analyst at global intelligence company Stratfor.
“Al-Shabab is reacting to a setback,” said Mark Schroeder.
The US considers al-Shabab a terrorist group with links to al Qaida, which al-Shabab denies.
The group controls much of Somalia and its fighters operate openly in the capital.
Last month, the Barack Obama administration announced it would bolster efforts to support Somalia’s embattled government by providing money for weapons and help the military in neighbouring Djibouti train Somali forces.
Government troops and African Union peacekeepers only hold a few blocks of Mogadishu, but they still control key government buildings as well as the port and airport, allowing them to receive arms shipments.
Mr Schroeder said elements of the insurgency, always prone to splits, may have wanted to make a public show of strength after the failure to decisively capture Mogadishu.
Somalia’s mostly clan-based militias frequently switch sides in the chaotic violence – the current president and the head of the insurgency were allies two years ago – and there have been signs of a power struggle in the area where the executions occurred.
The victims’ relatives arrived at the police station in Baidoa today to collect the bodies.
Al-Shabab militia officials said the seven had been accused of either renouncing the Islamic religion or spying for the government, one relative said.