Gunfire broke out in Mogadishu on Friday when the opposition tried to march against delayed elections in the Somali capital, sending months of political tensions bursting into the open.
Somalia missed a deadline to hold an election by February 8, when President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, better known by his nickname Farmajo, was due to step down, sparking a constitutional crisis in the already-fragile state.
Farmajo and leaders of the country’s federal states have been unable to resolve squabbles over how the vote is to be conducted, after hopes of hosting Somalia’s first one-person, one-vote ballot since 1969 were abandoned due to security and political problems.
A coalition of opposition candidates have said they no longer recognise Farmajo as president and had vowed mass protests until he steps down.
A small group of protesters attempted to march down the main airport road, when shots rang out, sending them ducking for cover, according to AFP footage of the incident.
It was unclear who opened fire first, but one witness Yusuf Mohamed reported a “heavy exchange of gunfire” between security forces and armed guards protecting opposition supporters.
Meanwhile witnesses and police confirmed an explosive projectile had hit an area hosting shops and restaurants just inside the airport gates.
“Something hit a restaurant inside the airport, it burned, I cannot say what it was but it caused a heavy explosion and fire that devastated the whole restaurant,” said witness Liban Ali.
After the incident the opposition leaders addressed a press conference, charging the shooting incident was an assassination attempt and that rockets had been fired.
“Myself, several other candidates, legislators and other protesting civilians survived a direct attempt to get rid of us,” said former prime minister Hassan Ali Khaire.
Another opposition leader, Abdiharman Abdishakur, said: “The rockets they fired at us passed and struck the airport where it caused destruction.”
By early afternoon gunfire had subsided in the capital.
In an address to the nation Prime Minister Mohamed Hussein Roble said he was “deeply disappointed with what has happened in Mogadishu the past 24 hours.”
“I call on the people in Mogadishu to stand up against violence. We will not accept organised demonstrations led by armed men against the security forces.”
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was “gravely concerned by the outbreak of violence in Mogadishu and calls on all parties to exercise restraint and calm,” a statement from his spokesman said.
He urged federal and state leaders to finalise a deal for national elections while also calling for the right to peacefully protest to be respected.
The government had warned the opposition against staging the protest, due to soaring coronavirus cases in the city. However the opposition coalition vowed to press on.
The group is allied against Farmajo but includes candidates running individually for his job, including two of Somalia’s former presidents.
Farmajo had been due to hold a meeting with regional leaders on Mogadishu on Friday in the latest bid to resolve the election impasse, however it did not take place.
Tensions first erupted overnight, with both sides accusing the other of staging attacks.
The Somali government in a statement accused “armed militiamen” protecting opposition leaders of attacking a government security checkpoint and seeking to take over parts of Mogadishu.
The opposition denied this and accused government forces of attacking the hotel where they were staying.
“They have attacked Maida hotel where myself and former president Hassan Sheikh Mohamud” were staying, said another former president Sharif Sheikh Ahmed on Twitter.
After the fighting overnight, government forces took control of the public square where the protest was to be held, and closed down all roads leading there, stationing military vehicles and troops around the capital.
Somalia has not had an effective central government since the collapse of Siad Barre’s military regime in 1991, which led to decades of civil war and lawlessness fuelled by clan conflicts.
The country also still battles the Al-Qaeda-linked Al-Shabaab Islamist militant group which controlled the capital until 2011, but retains parts of the countryside and carries out attacks against government, military and civilian targets, seemingly at will, in Mogadishu and regional towns.
Somalia still operates under an interim constitution and its institutions, such as the army, remain rudimentary, backed up with international support.
The election was to follow a complex indirect system used in the past in which special delegates chosen by Somalia’s myriad clan elders pick lawmakers, who in turn choose the president.