MOGADISHU (Reuters) – Gunfire and rocket fire erupted in Mogadishu on Friday as Somali government forces clashed with opposition supporters angry over late elections, fighting that could divide the army along clan lines and intensify the uprising linked to al Qaeda.
Video sent to Reuters from an anti-government demonstration showed civilians in face masks – accompanied by friendly soldiers in red berets with ammunition straps wrapped around them – waving Somali flags waving before weapons exploded. Reuters reporters nearby could hear permanent firearms as well as heavier explosions.
Many forces attacked us severely, I am now on my chest in an alley. This is a massacre, Farah Omar told protesters by telephone. He said troops of trained Turkish special forces known as Gorgor were among those attacking the demonstrators.
Another video showed the flames when a rocket-propelled grenade hit a string of shops in front of the airport entrance.
The spread of political rivalries in open conflict will disappoint Somalia’s allies and play into the hands of the al Qaeda-linked insurgency al Shabaab, which is stepping up attacks on civilians around East Africa in its attempt to install a law strictly Islamic.
The army is disbanding and many troops are apparently returning to the clan loyalty, said Colonel Ahmed Abdullahi Sheikh, who served for three years until 2019 as commander of the US-trained Danab elite unit in Somalia.
It’s a mess. There is no longer any command structure whatever.
My fear is that many departures of the SNA (Somali National Army) will leave their bases to come and take part in the fighting and give al Shabab more ground. This will really empower al Shabab. For more than a decade valuable gains could be lost, he told Reuters.
Hours ago, former Somali President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed accused government troops of attacking a hotel where he was staying with another former president ahead of Friday’s rally.
Tonight, Farmajo attacked us with armored vehicles. This is dictatorship. He attacked us and the residents at the Maida Hotel, Ahmed wrote on Twitter after the attack, referring to President Mohammed. We urge all civilians to come out and respond.
Somali Security Minister Hassan Hundubey Jimale accused the opposition of starting fighting.
Armed militia attacked government forces. We repulsed and defeated the militias, Jimale said in an overnight statement.
Without mediation, fighting can spread quickly.
Somalia has been ravaged by civil war since 1991 and both the government and the opposition can call for heavily armed supporters. Lawmakers often travel in vehicles armed with anti-aircraft guns.
Somali lawmakers would elect a new president on February 8th, but the process was postponed after the opposition accused the government of packing regional and national election boards with supporters.
Opposition coalition Somalia has said Mohammed’s term has expired and he is no longer president.
Mogadishu resident Ahmed Aden, 44, told Reuters on Friday he had to flee during gun battles at night.
Last night we took the kids and the mattresses over their shoulders and left before the war started, he said. We returned with weapons. Turkish-made armored vehicles and government forces blocked every road and alley.
Additional reporting by Abdiqani Hassan in Bossaso; Written by Clement Uwiringiyimana and Katharine Houreld; editing by Katharine Houreld, John Stonestreet, William Maclean
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