Somalia’s government on Wednesday urged people who had fled violence in the capital to return home, as tensions eased after the president called for elections and renewed dialogue with his political rivals.
President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed announced he would seek parliament’s approval for fresh elections, appearing to abandon a two-year extension to his mandate that ignited the country’s worst political violence in years.
The president, widely known by his nickname Farmajo, also called for “urgent discussions” with his political opponents, who had refused to recognize his authority since his four-year term lapsed in February.
The announcement offered a brief reprieve to Mogadishu, which has been on a knife’s edge since the political crisis erupted into gunfire on Sunday between rival factions of the security forces.
“I call on those people who have fled their homes because of the recent violent conflict in town to return,” said Prime Minister Mohamed Hussein Roble.
“I also call on members of the armed forces to help people return safely to their homes and businesses.”
Roble is one of several allies of the president who on Tuesday rejected his mandate extension, heaping pressure on the embattled leader.
The UN humanitarian agency OCHA said Wednesday that up to 100,000 people had fled the violence, including evacuees from other parts of the war-torn country who had sought refuge in the capital.
“Apart from displacing innocent civilians, the initial violence has created uncertainty and fear of disruptions of humanitarian assistance to hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people,” said Cesar Arroyo, acting humanitarian coordinator for Somalia.
One of Farmajo’s opponents, Abdirahman Abdishakur, rejected the president’s overture and accused him of plotting to cling to power.
“President Farmaajo lost an opportunity last night to say goodbye to the Somali people,” the influential opposition leader said in a statement.
But the president’s address, broadcast late at night after hours of anticipation, did ease fears of an imminent return to fighting in Mogadishu, where heavily-armed government and opposition forces control different parts of the capital.
Some people cautiously made their way back to their neighborhoods but left loved ones behind in order to be sure it was safe for them to return.
“I want to bring them back, but first I will observe the situation,” said Hayat Ali, a mother of three.
But some opposition fighters vowed to stand their ground, remaining wary of Farmajo and his promises.
“We don’t want a two-year extension to escalate to 20 years. We don’t want anyone to carry out a power grab,” said Osman Mohamed Mohamud, an opposition commander.
Somalia’s foreign backers had been appealing for restraint.
They warned that the internal power struggle threatened stability and sapped military efforts to repel the Al-Shabaab insurgency.
The jihadists claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing Wednesday outside a government building for prison wardens in southern Mogadishu that killed three people.
“The blast was huge. I was sleeping when it occurred, and the roof of my house shook. I went outside to check what happened, and saw ambulances rushing into scene,” said witness Abdukadir Moalim.
The clashes Sunday were triggered by an influx into the capital of soldiers from the Somali National Army loyal to Farmajo’s political opponents, the International Crisis Group (ICG) said.
At least three people — two police officers and an opposition fighter — were killed in the skirmishes.
The UN, among others, expressed alarm that Somalia’s poorly-paid security forces appeared to be fragmenting along the political and clan lines.
“A lot of these security forces were trained to fight against Al-Shabaab… and are not even deployed against Al-Shabaab. Rather, they’re focusing on each other,” ICG senior analyst for Somalia, Omar Mahmood, told AFP.
Farmajo and Somalia’s five semi-autonomous states struck a deal in September that paved the way for indirect elections, under a model whereby special delegates chosen by clan elders pick lawmakers, who in turn choose the president.
That agreement collapsed as Farmajo and the leaders of two states, Puntland and Jubaland, squabbled over the terms. Multiple rounds of UN-backed talks failed to bridge the impasse.
In his late-night address, Farmajo called for the resumption of talks to negotiate a way toward holding elections as laid out in the September agreement.