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Residents flee Mogadishu areas as Somali security forces start to split

Civilians flee following gunfire between factions within Somalia's security forces near KM4 in Hodan district of Mogadishu, Somalia April 26, 2021. REUTERS/Feisal Omar
Residents of Mogadishu fled some neighbourhoods on Tuesday fearing fresh clashes between rival factions in Somalia’s security forces, in a row about presidential term limits that has fuelled worries the country could return to all-out war.

Government forces also raided an independent radio station and confiscated equipment.

Forces loyal to the opposition hold parts of the city and the two sides clashed over the weekend, raising fears that al Qaeda-linked al Shabaab insurgents could exploit a security vacuum as state forces turn on each other. read more

The unrest is the second bout of violence in Mogadishu over an extension to President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed’s term, and the biggest risk this time is that continued clashes further splinter Somali security forces along ethnic lines, according to the International Crisis Group, a think-tank.

“Somalia is teetering on the brink of a major breakdown once again,” it said in a briefing published on Tuesday.

“If left unresolved, it has the potential to return the country to civil conflict, undoing fragile gains made over the past decade and a half.”

Earlier this month, the lower house of parliament voted to extend President Mohamed’s four-year term in office, but the Senate rejected the move, provoking the crisis.

Internal Security Minister Hassan Hundubey told a press conference that government forces had been exercising restraint to avoid harm to civilians and said, without providing evidence, that “thieves” were breaking into houses and killing people.

He said “incidents that should be confronted” were on the increase.

The African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia, the United Nations mission there, and a dozen other mainly African and Western nations condemned the outbreak of a violence and urged restraint.

“We are alarmed especially by the emerging fragmentation of the Somali National Army (SNA) along clan lines…,” a joint statement said.

Many soldiers in Somalia’s armed forces owe their loyalties to clan militias which have often battled each other for power and resources.

The presidential term extension has also angered foreign donors, who have backed Mohamed’s government to try to bring stability to a country wracked by civil war since 1991.

Residents said they left some Mogadishu neighbourhoods, fearing fighting after armed forces moved in.

‘ANTICIPATED BATTLE’

“This morning, we were surprised to see more well-armed pro-opposition troops have settled in this area of Siigaale, they told us to move,” said Abdullahi Mohamed, a local elder. Siigale is near Maka al Mukarama road that leads to the presidential palace.

Kaaha Ahmed, a mother of five, said they left Hodan district after pro-government forces arrived.

“Last night we saw a bigger movement of the Farmajo’s forces, closing in from every direction,” she said, referring to President Mohamed by his nickname.

“We did not want to be caught up in the anticipated battle.”

By Tuesday afternoon, government forces had sealed off the presidential palace with concrete barricades, a resident of the area told Reuters. Also on Tuesday, Turkish-trained Haramcad (“Cheetah”) police forces stormed Mustaqbal Radio, a private outlet, taking equipment and harassing journalists, the station’s manager said.

“We request the forces to return our equipment and not mistreat us again,” Ahmed Isse Gutale, the manager of Mustaqbal Media, told Reuters.

Neither information ministry spokesman Ismail Mukhtar Omar nor police spokesman Sadik Ali answered calls or texts seeking comment.

Overnight, Reuters journalists saw large numbers of government troops deployed in strategic locations, including near the house of opposition presidential candidate Abdirahman Abdishakur, where clashes took place on Sunday, and in the Gashandhiga area, which is where the military is headquartered.

Meanwhile, some opposition forces moved from the Hodan district to Hawle Wadag, a part of the city that is home to hotels, businesses and schools, according to Reuters reporters.

The political crisis distracts attention from the fight against the Islamist al Shabaab insurgency, which has killed thousands of civilians in the region in the past 12 years.

AU peacekeepers had clawed back control of the capital from al-Shabaab and donors have tried to develop Somalia’s fledgling institutions after more than two decades as a failed state.