Gunfire and blasts have erupted in Somalia’s capital of Mogadishu, according to witnesses, Somali government and opposition leaders, as security forces clashed with protesters angered by delayed elections.
It was unclear who opened fire first, but 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.
“There can be casualties but we are taking cover now I don’t know exactly what happened,” he told the AFP news agency.
Another witness Fadumo Moalim told AFP: “We were peacefully walking along the airport road together with former prime minister Hassan Ali Kheire, 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.
The violence comes after weeks of tensions over the holding of delayed elections in the Horn of Africa nation.
Al Jazeera’s Catherine Soi, reporting from Nairobi, said that the gunfire erupted in an area close to the airport, and that government and opposition sources had reported incidents.
“We have been told that the whole area where the incident happened has been cordoned off by the police and military,” she said.
She added that huge blasts have been heard in several buildings in the area, but the situation had calmed down.
“We are being told people in Mogadishu are going to the mosques for prayers, but there is still a lot fear,” she said. “Many people we have spoken are saying that they want to stay home, or they want to stay in the mosques and see how this plays out.”
Calls for president to step down
A coalition of opposition candidates is calling for President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, better known by his nickname Farmajo, 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.
Farmajo is to hold a meeting with regional leaders on Mogadishu on Friday in a bid to resolve the election impasse.
The government had warned the opposition against staging the protest, due to soaring cases of coronavirus in the city. However the opposition vowed to press on.
“Tomorrow marks the onset of … mass protests all over Somalia which will continue until Farmajo steps aside to pave way for free, fair and credible elections,” said a statement from the opposition coalition on Thursday.
The group is allied against Farmajo 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, said another former president Sharif Sheikh Ahmed on Twitter.
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.