Security forces in Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, have fired on hundreds of people protesting against the delay of the country’s elections as at least one explosion was reported at the international airport and armoured personnel carriers blocked major streets.
A protest leader told the Associated Press news agency on Friday that “some have died”.
One witness, Yusuf Mohamed, reported a “heavy exchange of gunfire” between security forces and armed guards protecting opposition supporters who began their march along the main airport road.
Another witness, Fadumo Moalim, told AFP news agency: “We were peacefully walking along the airport road together with former Prime Minister Hassan Ali Khaire, when the security forces opened fire on us, creating mayhem.”
A video seen by Al Jazeera from an anti-government demonstration showed civilians in face masks waving Somali flags scattering as gunfire erupted.
Today we were shot at by the military in Mogadishu, Somalia as we held peaceful protests against the refusal by Farmaajo government to hold timely elections and his illegal grab of power by force. I am alright but I don't know about other Somalis. pic.twitter.com/zk79SuDTwa
— Ayaan Ali (@SomAyaanAli) February 19, 2021
Al Jazeera’s Catherine Soi, reporting from Nairobi, said that the gunfire erupted in an area close to the airport and that huge blasts were heard in several buildings in the area.
The Associated Press saw wounded protesters limping or being carried into a local hospital.
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,” witness Liban Ali told the AFP.
People went into the streets despite the government banning public gatherings this week. It cited a rise in COVID-19 cases, but critics called it an attempt to block the protest.
Following Friday’s violence Soi said: “It’s very difficult to see how [protests] are going to happen now. There are police, military checkpoints – huge military deployment.”
The violence comes after weeks of tensions over the holding of delayed elections in the Horn of Africa nation.
The gunfire began shortly after Khaire, a presidential candidate, began leading the peaceful march on Friday.
Khaire asserted that shells fired against the protesters landed inside the airport grounds.
“Some have died and others were wounded,” he said.
After the incident, the opposition leader addressed a press conference, describing the shooting incident as an assassination attempt and saying that rockets had been fired.
“Myself, several other candidates, legislators and other protesting civilians survived a direct attempt to get rid of us,” Khaire said.
Another opposition leader, Abdirahman 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.
As protesters scattered, some angry Somalis warned the president that retaliatory violence could occur.
“If this is what [the president] wants, he will get more of it because this is what we know best,” said one demonstrator, Mohamed Abdi Halane, a militia leader for one of Somalia’s powerful clans.
One clan leader, Mohamed Ali Had, told the Associated Press that “trying to suppress our views was what forced us to oust late dictator Siad Barre, which led to the destruction of the country” three decades ago.
Somalia’s prime minister condemned the clashes on Friday, underlining that the presence of armed demonstrators was “unacceptable”.
“Every person in this country has a constitutional right to protest peacefully but my government will not tolerate any armed protesters and it is unacceptable,” Mohamed Hussein Roble said in a televised speech.
Calling on residents of the capital to reject the prospect of conflict in the city and destruction of their property, Roble said his government was committed to hold peaceful, transparent and inclusive elections.
A coalition of opposition candidates is calling for President Mohamed (Farmaajo) to step down after his term expired on February 8.
The deadline to hold indirect elections was missed as the country’s semi-autonomous regions squabbled over how to conduct the vote.
Farmaajo 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.
The opposition coalition is allied against Farmaajo but includes candidates running individually for his job, including two of Somalia’s former presidents.
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, another former President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed said on Twitter.
Soi said Ahmed blamed Farmaajo of “ordering an attack on them to stifle their freedom of expression and to stop them from going to that rally”.
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.
The United Nations in Somalia (UNSOM) wrote on Twitter on Friday it was “deeply concerned by armed clashes in Mogadishu overnight and on Friday morning, calls for calm and restraint by all parties involved, and urges that open lines of communication be maintained to help reduce tensions”.
UNSOM highlighted the urgent need for the federal government and states to “reach political agreement” on the election.