Somali soldiers near the wreckage left by a suicide bombing targeting African Union troops in September.

Somali soldiers near the wreckage left by a suicide bombing targeting African Union troops in September. Photo: Reuters

Mogadishu: A leader of Somali Islamist group al-Shabab, who has a $3 million US bounty on his head, has surrendered, a Somali government official and local media said on Saturday, although the militants said he had long left their organisation.

Zakariya Ismail Ahmed Hersi was one of seven al-Shabab leaders for whom the US State Department in 2012 offered a total of $33 million in reward money for information that led to their capture.

If true, Hersi’s surrender would be the second major blow to al-Shabab’s leadership in just a few months. In September the group’s main leader, Ahmed Abdi Godane, was killed by a US drone strike.

Four suspected al-Shabab fighters are detained by Somali troops after a gun battle in Mogadishu on Friday.

Four suspected al-Shabab fighters are detained by Somali troops after a gun battle in Mogadishu on Friday. Photo: AFP

“Al-Shabab leader Zakariya Ismail surrendered to government forces in El Wak, Gedo region. He is expected to be flown to Mogadishu tomorrow,” a senior government official told Reuters.

State radio website Radio Muqdisho also reported Hersi’s surrender, describing him as “the general secretary of al-Shabab’s finance (department)”. It did not give reasons for his surrender.

But a senior member of al-Shabab’s media team said Hersi left the Islamist group two years ago.

“The government exaggerates the story just to cover the recent attack at the [African Union] base,” the al-Shabab figure told Reuters by phone, referring to this week’s attack on a base in the capital Mogadishu.

“(Hersi) cannot have impact on al-Shabab because he is not a member.”

The government offered an amnesty to al-Shabab members in September, but key leaders have not taken up the offer.

The al-Qaeda-aligned group wants to topple the Western-backed Mogadishu government. Although it still controls chunks of the countryside in south and central Somalia, this year it has lost several key towns during two major offensives by African Union peacekeepers and the Somali National Army.

However, the group continues to carry out hit-and-run attacks in Somalia and in neighbouring Kenya, where it has killed hundreds of people over the past 18 months. 

Reuters