Insurgents of the Somali al-Shabaab group say they have shot down a US drone aircraft flying over the southern port of Kismayu, a claim the American military denies.
US commandos killed a ‘most wanted’ al Qaeda suspect allied to al Shabaab last month in a helicopter raid in the rebel-held south of the failed state.
“We fired at an American plane spying for information over Kismayu. Our forces targeted the plane and shot it and we saw the plane burning. We think it fell into the sea,” said Sheikh Hassan Yacqub, spokesperson for al Shabaab in Kismayu.
“We are still searching for it,” he told Reuters.
Lieutenant Nathan Christensen, spokesperson of the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet in Bahrain, said all its unmanned aerial vehicles had been safely recovered but could not give further details.
Al Shabaab, which Washington says is al Qaeda’s proxy in Somalia, controls much of the south and centre where it is waging an insurgency against the fragile UN-backed government.
Residents in one small central town, Galhareeri, said al Shabaab fighters destroyed a mosque, the grave of a revered Sufi Muslim cleric and a Sufi Muslim university there.
The hardline group has targeted Sufi holy sites and religious leaders in the past, saying their practices conflict with the insurgents’ strict interpretation of Islamic law.
“They destroyed the Sheikh Ali Ibaar’s grave and our mosque. They also knocked down our Islamic university,” elder Hassan Ali said by telephone. “We do not know where to flee.”
Fighting in Somalia has killed 19 000 civilians since the start of 2007 and driven 1.5 million from their homes.
A spokesperson for Ahlu Sunna Waljamaca, a moderate Sufi militia group that is battling al Shabaab in central regions, denounced the desecration of the holy sites in Galhareeri.
“We strongly condemn al Shabaab for its evil acts,” Sheikh Abdullahi Sheikh Abu Yusuf told Reuters. “They are notorious for destroying great graves, even in places where they just spend a couple of nights.”
Al Shabaab has shocked many Somalis, moderate Muslims, with its stern version of Sharia law, involving amputations for theft, and lately the public whipping of women for wearing bras.
Al Shabaab fighters have banned movies, musical telephone ringtones, dancing at weddings and playing or watching soccer. Some residents, however, give the rebels credit for restoring a degree of law and order to parts of the country.
In the capital Mogadishu, police displayed yesterday the body of a foreign gunman who appeared to be Arab and was killed during an al Shabaab attack on government forces.
“You see this dead Arab. He was among the members of al Qaeda who came from other countries just to destroy Somalia,” police spokesperson Abdullahi Barise told reporters, standing over the corpse of a light-skinned man with several bullet wounds.
Al Shabaab have urged foreign jihadists to join their battle against what they describe as Somalia’s apostate government.