Gunfire broke out in Mogadishu on Friday as the opposition tried to march against delayed elections in the Somali capital where roads have been sealed off and heavy security deployed over the planned protest, witnesses said.
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 AFP.
Another witness Fadumo Moalim said: "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."
The violence comes after weeks of tensions over the holding of delayed elections in the Horn of Africa nation.
The coalition of opposition candidates is calling for President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, better known as Farmaajo, 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.
Farmaajo is to hold a meeting with regional leaders in Mogadishu on Friday in a bid to resolve the elections 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 Farmaajo 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 Farmaajo but includes candidates running individually for his job, including two of Somalia's former presidents.
Tension peaked on Thursday evening when pro-opposition forces led by General Yusuf Siad Indha’adde occupied the Monument of the Unknown Soldier, claiming that they are there to protect the Coalition of the Presidential Candidates (CPC) leaders and the demonstrators.
But, after midnight, heavy exchange of fire erupted between Gen Indha’adde’s loyalists and units of the Somali government forces.
People around the area testified that after nearly an hour, the government forces seized the monument and surrounding areas.
Following the heavy exchange of fire, the government and the opposition accused each other of staging attacks..
Ex-President and opposition presidential candidate Hassan Sheikh Mohamoud held a press conference at Ma’ida Hotel (ex Nasa Hablood 2) where some of the opposition presidential candidates are staying. He accused the government of deploying forces around the hotel they were staying at and restricting movements in and out of the lodging.
“The government forces attacked the hotel where Sheikh Sharif (former president and chairman of the CPC) and I are staying,” Mohamoud said, accusing Farmaajo of initiating violence.
“It is lamentable that Farmaajo, whose term in office lapsed, is willing to spill the blood of the demonstrators,” ex-President Mohamoud stated.
Ex-Prime Minister Hassan Ali Khaire, another presidential candidate, accused the government of using heavy hand in crashing the demonstration.
“The term in office of all state institutions had expired and this illegal use of force against the opposition is what I have been predicting over the last months, which is unacceptable,” Khaire said in his released statement.
On the other hand, Somalia’s Internal Security Minister Hassan Hundubey Jim’ale stated that militia loyal to the CPC attacked positions held by the government forces. “The militias were repelled by the government forces,” said Jim’ale.
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.
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.