KISMAYO, Somalia (AFP) â€” Muslim gunmen opened fire Monday on crowds protesting the overnight Islamist takeover of Somalia’s key port of Kismayo, with conflicting reports of casualties.
Witnesses said at least two people had been killed and three wounded but Islamist commanders denied anyone had died or been injured, although they acknowledged firing over unruly demonstrators in the town. The protest erupted just hours after the Islamists seized Kismayo late Sunday from the Juba Valley Alliance, a government-allied group in a new setback for Somalia’s weak administration. Witnesses said Islamist gunman shot at protesters outside the militia’s former offices during protests over the removal of the Somali flag.
“Two people were killed and three others were wounded,” said Kismayo resident Ahmed Sahal, who saw the unrest unfold after the Islamists were given an initially wary but largely friendly welcome to the town. He said the protesters had been complaining about the replacement of the Somali national flag with an Islamist banner, inscribed in Arabic with the phrase “There is but one God Allah and Mohammad is his prophet.” Another Kismayo resident, Leyla Ahmed, said shooting appeared to start when a crowd outside the JVA office became angry that the old flag was taken down.
“Some of the demonstrators were armed and they got violent when they saw the flag removed from the headquarters,” she told AFP. “The situation is very tense and people cannot move.” Sheikh Hassan Yakub, the commander of the Islamist forces in Kismayo, vehemently denied anyone had been killed or wounded in the incident he described as “self-defence” that began when rocks were thrown at his fighters.
“I want to tell you that no one was killed, this is a lie, an absolute lie,” he told AFP. “This is a wishful thinking by those who want to see Somalia bleeding all the time.” In Mogadishu, a senior official with the Supreme Islamic Council of Somalia (SICS) also denied the witness accounts of a deaths and injuries.
Islamist forces rolled into Kismayo, about 500 kilometres south of Mogadishu, without firing a shot late on Sunday after the JVA, which is led by the government’s Defence Minister Barre Shire Hirale, fled.
JVA officials said their retreat to an area about 40 kilometers southwest of the town had been a “tactical withdrawal” intended to avoid needless bloodshed and vowed to recapture the port.
But after their departure, hundreds of turbaned, heavily armed fighters on “battlewagons,” machinegun mounted pick-ups, took up positions in and around Kismayo and vowed to impose Sharia Law in the town, witnesses said.
The move gives the Islamists, who already control the capital and much of southern Somalia, a new and strategic position from which they say they will block the deployment of foreign peacekeepers proposed to aid the government.
“The main objective is to close down the border with Kenya in order to stop the deployment of foreign troops,” SICS deputy security chief Sheikh Muktah Robow told AFP.
Kismayo is about 150 kilometres east of Somalia’s border with Kenya.
In the temporary government seat of Baidoa, officials said they were deeply concerned about the situation in Kismayo and that the Islamist’s move to take the town was “negative.” “Their move is unpopular in Kismayo and generally it is a negative move for peace and reconciliation,” government spokesman Abdurahman Dinari told AFP.
The fall of Kismayo is a severe blow to the government and its hopes for the deployment of a nearly 8,000-strong regional east African peacekeeping force.
Despite fierce Islamist opposition, the seven-member Inter-Govermental Authority on Development (IGAD) has approved African Union-endorsed plans to send troops to salvage the government it helped create in 2004.
But it faces numerous hurdles, not least of which are Islamist vows to fight the force, a lack of money to pay for the mission and logistical problems, now including no port in which to land the troops.
The internationally backed but largely powerless administration is the latest in more than a dozen attempts to restore stability to Somalia, which was plunged into anarchy after the 1991 ouster of strongman Mohammad Siad Barre.