MOGADISHU (Reuters) - Hardline al Shabaab rebels have destroyed a mosque and the grave of a revered Sufi Muslim sheikh in central Somalia after shooting in the air to drive away local protesters, residents said Monday.Al Shabaab, which Washington says is al Qaeda's proxy in the failed Horn of Africa state, has targeted Sufi holy sites and religious leaders in the past, saying their practices go against the insurgents' strict interpretation of Islamic law.
The rebel group is waging a stubborn insurgency against the fragile U.N-backed government of President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed.
Witnesses said residents in the small town of Galhareeri tried to stop the al Shabaab fighters late Sunday, but the rebel gunmen opened fire in the air, forcing everyone to flee.
"They destroyed the grave of Sheikh Ali Ibaar and our mosque. They also knocked down our Islamic university," local elder Hassan Ali told Reuters by telephone from Galhareeri.
"We are now just squatting among the trees on the outskirts of the town. We do not know where to flee."Fighting in Somalia has killed 19,000 civilians since the start of 2007 and driven another 1.5 million from their homes.A spokesman for Ahlu Sunna Waljamaca, a moderate Sufi militia group that is battling al Shabaab in central regions, denounced the desecration of the holy sites in Galhareeri.
"We strongly condemn al Shabaab for its evil acts," Sheikh Abdullahi Sheikh Abu Yusuf told Reuters. "They are notorious for destroying great graves in places where they even just spend a couple of nights. But we have not planned to take action yet."
The al Shabaab insurgent group has shocked many Somalis, who are traditionally moderate Muslims, with its stern version of Sharia law, which has involved amputations for thieves -- and most recently the whipping in public of women for wearing bras.
Al Shabaab fighters have also banned movies in territory under their control, as well as forbidding musical telephone ringtones, dancing at weddings and playing or watching soccer.
Some residents, however, give the rebels credit for restoring a degree of law and order to parts of the country.
Ali Yasin Gedi, vice chairman of Mogadishu's Elman Peace and Human Rights Organization, told Reuters that Sunday's attacks in Galhareeri were a violation of the freedom to worship.
"It is against Islam to violate human rights," he said.Separately in the capital Monday, police displayed the body of a foreign gunman who appeared to be Arab and was killed Sunday during an al Shabaab attack on government forces."You see this dead Arab. He was among the members of al Qaeda who came from other countries just to destroy Somalia," police spokesman Abdullahi Barise told reporters, standing over the corpse of a light-skinned man with several bullets wounds.Al Shabaab have urged foreign jihadists to join their battle against what they describe as Somalia's apostate government.
(Additional reporting by Ibrahim Mohamed and Abdi Guled in Mogadishu; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Giles Elgood)