Somalia’s government urged people who had fled violence in the capital to return home on Wednesday, as tensions eased after the president called for elections and reopened talks with his political opponents. 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, also known as Farmajo, asked for “urgent discussions” with his political opponents, who had refused to recognize his authority since his four-year term expired in February. The announcement provided a brief reprieve to Mogadishu, which has been on a knife’s edge since a political crisis erupted into gunfire between rival security forces factions on Sunday.
“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. According to the UN humanitarian agency OCHA, up to 100,000 people have fled the violence, including evacuees from other parts of the war-torn country who 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.
Abdirahman Abdishakur, one of Farmajo’s opponents, dismissed the president’s overture and accused him of plotting to retain 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 returned to their neighborhoods, leaving loved ones behind to ensure it was safe for them to return. Some opposition fighters, however, have vowed to hold 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.
Foreign backers of Somalia had pleaded for restraint. They warned that the internal power struggle posed a threat to stability and sapped military efforts to counter the Al-Shabaab insurgency. The jihadists claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing that killed three people outside a government building for prison wardens in southern Mogadishu on Wednesday.
“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 was 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 United Nations, among others, expressed concern that Somalia’s underpaid security forces appeared to be splintering along political and clan lines.
In September, Farmajo and Somalia’s five semi-autonomous states reached an agreement that paved the way for indirect elections, using a model in which special delegates chosen by clan elders choose lawmakers, who in turn choose the president.
Farmajo and the leaders of two states, Puntland and Jubaland, squabbled over the terms, and the agreement fell apart. Multiple rounds of UN-sponsored talks have failed to break the deadlock. In his late-night speech, Farmajo called for the resumption of talks to find a way to hold elections in accordance with the September agreement.