Gunfire erupted in Somalia’s capital on Sunday between security forces loyal to the government and others angry at the country’s leader as tensions spiked over President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed’s extended stay in power.
The gunfire heard across much of the city highlighted earlier warnings that the election standoff could increase instability in the Horn of Africa nation. An estimated hundreds of mutinous soldiers, still in uniform, took up key positions in northern Mogadishu as some residents hid.
Somalia’s homeland security minister, Hassan Hundubey Jimale, expressed condolences to all victims but did not say how many people had been killed or wounded. He accused “some people who are not interested in the security of their people” of launching an attack in Mogadishu and said security forces had repulsed them.
The president signed a law in mid-April extending his mandate for two years, stoking opposition inside Somalia and putting him on a collision course with Western and other donors opposed to the move.
Somalia, which plunged into war and chaos in 1991, has been struggling to re-establish the authority of central government and rebuild the nation, with international help. The failure to hold elections that were due in February sparked a new crisis.
“There is gunfire between pro-opposition military and government forces at Fagah Junction,” Halima Osman, a resident of Fagah in Mogadishu, told Reuters news agency.
A Reuters witness saw four military vehicles positioned in one place in the Fagah area.
Former Somali president Hassan Sheikh Mohamud in a tweet alleged that forces loyal to the president attacked his house on Sunday, adding that: “I’ve warned and am now repeating how dangerous it is to politicise security. (Mohamed) will shoulder the responsibility of whatever happens as a result of this.”
The internal security minister, Hassan Hundubey Jimale, denied the former president’s claim and blamed the attack on “armed militias”. Hassan said government forces responded to the attack and brought it to an end.
Al Jazeera’s Catherine Soi, reporting from Nairobi in neighbouring Kenya, said security forces loyal to President Mohamed have reportedly exchanged fire with soldiers who oppose the extension of his term.
“People are very worried about the security situation. Especially now with what appears to be the involvement of the military taking sides,” Soi said.
“We have seen movements of troops in Mogadishu starting last night. The troops were called by their commander from the frontline in Hirshabelle region. The commander is opposed to the extension of the president’s term. He has given the president an ultimatum of 24 hours to step down,” Soi added.
The soldiers were believed to have entered the city from military bases outside Mogadishu. Most of them belong to the clan of former presidents Mohamud and Sharif Sheikh Ahmed. Both have vowed to forcefully dislodge the president if he does not return to negotiations over the election delay or resign.
The European Union called for the sides to exercise “maximum restraint”.
“Highly concerned about the ongoing events in Mogadishu. The general interest requests maximum restraint, preserve institutions that belong to all and dialogue. Violence is unacceptable. Those responsible will be held accountable.” Nicolas Berlanga, EU ambassador to Somalia, tweeted on Sunday.
On Friday, the UN Security Council called on all sides “to reject violence and resume dialogue as a matter of urgency and without precondition”, underscoring its concern over the country’s political crisis.
“The members of the Security Council expressed their deep concern about the continued political impasse and disagreement among Somalia’s political leaders on the model for elections,” the document said.
The Security Council on March 31, following an urgent meeting, had called on Somali authorities to resolve the dispute over the electoral process.
The legal authority of President Mohamed, better known as Farmajo, has been in doubt since February when his four-year term expired before fresh presidential elections were held.
A bill earlier this month extending his mandate by two years bypassed the Senate after being adopted by the lower house of parliament.
Opposition parties decried the move as an unconstitutional bid to cling to power, and the law was criticised by the international community.
The president and leaders of Somalia’s five semi-autonomous federal states had reached an agreement in September that paved the way for indirect parliamentary and presidential elections in late 2020 and early 2021.
But it fell apart as squabbles erupted over how to conduct the vote, and multiple rounds of talks have failed to break the impasse.
The new law paves the way for a one-person, one-vote election in 2023 – the first such direct poll since 1969 – which Somalis have been promised for years and no government has managed to deliver.
The UN Security Council statement added that the political impasse is also “diverting attention from pressing problems such as floods, drought, desert locusts, the COVID-19 pandemic, and combatting the terrorist threat of al-Shabab”.