Somali opposition fighters cordon off parts of tense capital

Nairobi, Kenya: Somali opposition fighters took up positions in parts of the tense capital on Monday, 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 on Monday, 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 remains 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."

What to know about the violence in Somalia

Fighting has erupted in the Somali capital Mogadishu, with rising tensions between the president and a host of powerful opponents spilling over in the fragile country's worst political violence in years.

The clashes came after President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed failed to hold scheduled elections and instead extended his mandate by two years, thrusting the long-troubled Horn of Africa nation into a fresh crisis.

What is happening?

Armed men and vehicles mounted with machine guns have taken up positions in opposition strongholds after a night of gunfire in the capital after government troops clashed with fighters allied to the president's rivals.

At daybreak, the sporadic bursts of gunfire had eased but sandbags and logs blocked roads to tense neighborhoods, and some residents prepared to flee ahead of a feared return to violence.

It was not immediately clear which forces had exchanged fire. President Mohamed, better known by his nickname Farmajo, faces an array of foes and some are capable of mobilizing well-equipped militias loyal to clan ties.

Somalia's previous president Hassan Sheik Mohamud claimed forces loyal to Farmajo attacked his residence in Mogadishu. The government denied this, saying government troops repelled several assaults by "organized militia who entered the capital".

Some schools and universities were closed while in other parts of the city life proceeded much as usual.

How did we get here?

The political temperature in Mogadishu, one of the few parts of Somalia under central government control, has been climbing since February when Farmajo's four-year term lapsed before fresh elections were held.

His opponents accused Farmajo of refusing to leave office and organized street protests against his continued rule that ended in gunfire and chaos.

As tensions escalated, Farmajo earlier this month signed into law a contentious measure extending his mandate and promised elections within two years.

The move was declared unconstitutional by Farmajo's rivals, and rejected by Somalia's western backers, who urged him to return to the negotiation table and threatened sanctions if he did not comply.

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.

A deal was cobbled together in September paving the way for indirect elections by February but that agreement collapsed, and multiple rounds of UN-backed talks failed to broker a way forward.

Who are the parties involved?

Farmajo's rivals in Puntland and Jubaland have formed an alliance with a powerful coalition of presidential aspirants and other opposition heavyweights in Mogadishu.

They include two former presidents and the speaker of the Senate, whose chamber was denied the opportunity to review the mandate extension before its signing into law, and declared it null and void.

They had warned that ruling by decree risks peace and stability in Somalia -- a loaded threat given Jubaland and Somali forces have clashed on the battlefield and some of Farmajo's enemies command clan militias.

Analysts fear a splintering of Somalia's security forces along political and clan lines and had warned Mogadishu could be the scene of street-to-street battles.

How has the world reacted?

The British embassy and European Union envoy in Mogadishu expressed alarm over the latest violence, while the United Nations Mission in Somalia (UNSOM) urged "calm and maximum restraint by all parties".

"Violence is not the solution to the current political stalemate. We urgently call on all parties to resume immediate dialogue," UNSOM posted on Twitter.

But Farmajo counts on support from Qatar and Turkey and regional allies Eritrea and Ethiopia, analysts say, while exploiting divisions within the West over how to handle the recalcitrant administration.

The UN had warned for months that any further delay to elections or extension or prior mandates would not be tolerated by the international community that keeps Somalia financially afloat.

What about Al-Shabaab?

The crisis meanwhile plays straight into the hands of Al-Shabaab, the insurgents who control swathes of Somalia and are bent on overthrowing the government in Mogadishu and imposing strict Islamic law.

The Al-Qaeda-linked militants have released propaganda videos in recent weeks that seize on the political chaos, casting the country's elite as power-hungry and unfit to govern.

The internal squabbling gives Al-Shabaab an opening to exploit divisions in the armed forces and further its violent agenda, said Murithi Mutiga from the International Crisis Group (ICG) think tank.

"This is a gift for Al-Shabaab," the ICG's project director for the Horn of Africa told AFP.

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