Somali fighters used hammers to destroy the graves of clerics and other prominent people in Kismayo
Al-Shabab, an armed group fighting transitional government and Ethiopian forces in Somalia, is desecrating religious shrines in the south of the country, Al Jazeera has learned.

The ancient graves of clerics and other prominent people are among holy sites being targeted by the armed group in the port city of Kismayo.

Al-Shabab took control of Somalia's third-largest city about four months ago and quickly announced it would not tolerate anything it deemed un-Islamic.

Al Jazeera correspondent Mohammed Adow said Kismayo's Roman Catholic church was torn down just days after they seized power through bloody fighting.

"The 60-year-old church had not been used for nearly 20 years and not a single Christian lives in the city - but that was not a good enough reason for the militias to spare the building, he said."

"They are planning to replace it with a mosque."

Graves targeted

The fighters then turned their hammers on graves, some of which contained the remains of followers of Sufi, a mystical form of Islam.

The sites have been revered for decades and are regularly visited by people paying homage to the dead, a practice al-Shabab has condemned as being akin to idolatry.

"We are a chosen lot by Allah to try and correct the mystics of the people and guide them," Hassan Yaqub, a spokesman for the Kismayo administration, told Al Jazeera.

"We have a responsibility to the people to guard the people against all evil deeds."

In Marka, another coastal town in the south of the country, Al Jazeera witnessed the public implementation of Sharia, or Islamic law.  

Three men accused of smoking hashish were given a public flogging before the al-Shabab fighters set fire to the drugs that were purportedly found when the men were arrested. 

Such practices have become more frequent as al-Shabab has increased its influence across southern and central Somalia, taking back many of the areas which were formerly controlled by the Islamic Courts Union until late 2006.

In October, a 13-year-old girl was reportedly stoned to death in Kismayo after she was found guilty of adultery.

The UN later said that she had been raped.

Last month, 32 people were whipped for taking part in a traditional dance in the town of Balad, about 30km north of the capital Mogadishu.

Public support

The crowds which were made to witness the flogging in Marka appeared to be overwhelmingly supportive of the new measures being taken by the new Islamist authorities.  

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Graves and churches destroyed

"We support their efforts 100 per cent. The establishment of Sharia is a source of joy for us all," one resident told Al Jazeera.

Another said: "We are happy with the Islamists, we now have peace and the criminals have nowhere to hide."

Somalia has had no effective government since a coup removed Siad Barre from power in 1991, leading to an almost total breakdown in law and order.

The only relative stability areas of the country have enjoyed in recent years was during the short period of rule by the Islamic Courts Union in 2006.

"For the Somali people the choice is really a very difficult one ... which one would they want to live with, a strict sharia or a situation with no security," Billow Kerrow, a Kenya-based regional analyst, told Al Jazeera.

"I think in the beginning they might find it easier to implement a very strict code of Islam, but as the government responsibilities start setting in the challenges will be enormous ... to try and practice a system which will be accommodating to all."

Source: Al Jazeera