Somali security officers assess the scene of an explosion in Mogadishu, Somalia, February 13 2021. Picture: REUTERS/FEISAL OMAR
Somali security officers assess the scene of an explosion in Mogadishu, Somalia, February 13 2021. Picture: REUTERS/FEISAL OMAR

Mogadishu — Gunfire and rockets exploded in Mogadishu on Friday as Somali government forces clashed with opposition supporters angered by delayed elections, fighting that could split the military along clan lines and strengthen the al-Qaeda-linked insurgency.

Video sent from an anti-government demonstration showed civilians in masks — accompanied by friendly soldiers in red berets with ammunition belts wrapped around them — waving Somali flags scattering before gunfire erupted. Reuters journalists nearby could hear intermittent gunfire as well as heavier explosions.

“Many forces heavily attacked us, I am now on my chest in an alley. This is a massacre,” protester Farah Omar said. He said Turkish-trained special forces troops known as Gorgor were among those attacking demonstrators.

Another video showed flames where a rocket-propelled grenade hit a row of shops opposite the airport entrance.

The spillover of political rivalries into open conflict will dismay Somalia’s allies and play into the hands of the al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabaab insurgency, which mounts attacks on civilians around East Africa in its bid to install strict Islamic law.

“The military is dissolving and many troops seemingly reverting to clan loyalties,” said Col Ahmed Abdullahi Sheikh, who served for three years until 2019 as the commander of Somalia’s elite US-trained Danab unit.

“It’s a mess. There’s no longer any command structure whatsoever. My fear is that many Somali National Army (SNA) outstations will leave their bases to come and participate in the fighting and give more ground to al-Shabab. This will really empower al-Shabab. Over a decade’s worth of gains might be lost,” he said.

Overnight attacks

Hours before that, Somalia’s former 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, [Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed] ‘Farmajo attacked us with armoured vehicles. That is dictatorship. He attacked us and residents at Maida hotel,” Ahmed tweeted after the attack. “We ask all civilians to come out and respond.”

Somalia’s minister of security Hassan Hundubey Jimale accused the opposition of starting the fighting. “Armed militia attacked government forces. We repulsed and overpowered the militias,” Jimale said in an overnight statement.

Without mediation, the fighting has the potential to spread quickly.

Somalia has been riven by civil war since 1991 and both the government and opposition can call on heavily armed supporters. Legislators often travel in vehicles armed with anti-aircraft guns.

Somali lawmakers were due to select a new president on February 8, but the process was delayed after the opposition accused the government of packing regional and national electoral boards with supporters.

Somalia’s opposition alliance has said that Mohammed’s term has expired and he is no longer president.

Mogadishu resident Ahmed Aden, said on Friday he had to flee during the night’s gun battles. “Last night, we took our children and mattresses on our shoulders and fled before war started,” he said. “We returned at gunpoint. Turkish-made armoured vehicles and government forces blocked every road and alley.” 

Reuters

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