MOGADISHU: Personnel of the Somali military force supporting anti-government opposition leaders rest along a street Sunday. – AFP

MOGADISHU, Somalia: Somali opposition fighters took up positions in parts of the tense capital yesterday, a day after clashes with government troops erupted over the president’s bid to extend his mandate. Witnesses reported that armed men and vehicles mounted with machine guns were stationed in opposition strongholds, while key roads in Mogadishu were blocked.

“Both the Somali security forces and the pro-opposition fighters have taken positions along some key roads,” witness Abdullahi Mire told AFP. Somalia, already fragile after decades of civil war and an Islamist insurgency, is facing its worst political crisis in recent years after the failure to hold planned elections in February. President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, best known by his nickname Farmajo, has faced harsh criticism from foreign allies after signing a law approved by parliament which extended his mandate by two years.

On Sunday night, sporadic bursts of heavy gunfire rang out across the capital after fighting broke out between government forces and soldiers allied-mainly by all-important clan ties-to the various opposition leaders. The clashes-mainly in the northern neighborhoods of Sanca and Marinaya and the busy KM4 crossroads in the center-began after dozens of opposition supporters marched in protest against Farmajo’s term extension. There were no immediate reports of casualties.

‘Stop the fighting’
Tensions remained high yesterday, with some people trying to leave their homes in tense neighborhoods. “People are starting to flee from Bermudo area where the pro-opposition fighters have taken positions last night, the situation is tense and there can be an armed confrontation anytime if the situation remain the same,” Fadumo Ali, a resident of one of the tense neighborhoods told AFP.

Mogadishu residents urged both sides to stop fighting, and complained that electricity and water had been cut. “We need both sides to stop the fighting, have sympathy with the children and elderly,” said Farah Hassan. Witnesses elsewhere reported roads blocked by sand and logs. “I saw several pickup trucks mounted with … weapons belonging to forces loyal to (former president) Hassan Sheik Mohamud positioned along the main road leading to Marinaya,” said Ali Hassan, who lives in the northern Kaaraan district.

“There is no fighting, but the government forces are also stationed a few blocks away.” The former president Mohamud said Sunday that “forces loyal to” Farmajo had attacked his house, which the government denied. “Earlier today, our forces foiled several attempted attacks against the public and shut down the organized militia who entered the capital with an aim of instilling fear and panic among the public,” the internal security ministry said in a statement. While schools and universities were closed, life in some of the unaffected neighborhoods proceeded much as usual.

Somalia’s prime minister, Mohamed Hussein Roble, told a press conference Monday he was “disappointed with the violence aimed at destabilizing peace and stability in Mogadishu during the holy month of Ramadan.” He urged security forces to “fulfill their national commitment and protect the stability of the people in Mogadishu.”

‘Violence is unacceptable’
Farmajo’s four-year mandate expired in February before fresh elections could be held, leading to a constitutional crisis and to opposition leaders refusing to recognize him. The crisis mushroomed from a long-simmering disagreement between Farmajo and the leaders of Puntland and Jubaland, two of Somalia’s five semi-autonomous states, over how to conduct elections.

Multiple rounds of talks failed to find a solution, and parliament pushed through the bill extending his mandate for two years. The crisis in Somalia has led to increasing dismay from the country’s foreign backers, who have called on Farmajo to return to dialogue with leaders of the country’s five federal states over the holding of elections.

The British embassy and European Union envoy in Mogadishu expressed alarm over the violence. The UN Mission in Somalia wrote on Twitter it was “deeply concerned about clashes occurring in Mogadishu. We urge calm and maximum restraint by all parties. Violence is not the solution to the current political stalemate.” The African Union (AU) said last week that Farmajo’s mandate extension undermined Somalia’s “unity and stability” and “nascent democratic and constitutional processes.” – AFP