WASHINGTON / BAIDOA, SOMALIA - The former deputy leader of al-Qaida-linked militant group al-Shabab has been arrested in southern Somalia, sparking clashes between his supporters and pro-government forces that left eight people dead.
Officials speaking on condition of anonymity say Mukhtar Robow, also known as Abu Mansoor, was invited to a meeting Thursday at the regional state presidential palace in Baidoa, 250 kilometers northwest of Mogadishu. They say upon arrival, he was immediately detained.
Telecommunications in Biadoa were briefly shut down as disgruntled Robow supporters took to the streets.
Robow's militia along with his supporters clashed with Ethiopian soldiers providing security to the palace, leaving eight people dead and more than 10 others injured, witnesses and officials told VOA's Somali service.
Two Somali lawmakers who spoke to the VOA accused the Somali government of arresting Robow using Ethiopian military forces.
A VOA stringer reports that sporadic gunfire could still be heard across the town Thursday after midday.
Calls VOA made to several federal government officials to comment on the incident were not answered.
Robow, who was trained by al-Qaida in Afghanistan, was one of the founders of al-Shabab in 2006 and served as its number-two leader for several years. In 2012, the U.S. government offered $5 million for information on his whereabouts.
But a rift within al-Shabab, between parts of the group seeking to establish a global caliphate and others like Robow who were more focused on national issues, drove him away from the group.
In 2013, fearing for his life, Robow went into hiding, protected by his own loyal militia in South Western region of Bakol, starting secret negotiations with the Somali government. He finally turned himself over to authorities of the Somali Federal Government in August 2017, after the United States removed the bounty on his head.
In October, he announced that he was running for president of Somalia's South West region, but the federal government issued a sharp 'no' to his candidacy.
A statement by the internal security ministry said Robow was not eligible to run for the post because he is still under international sanctions. The move angered his supporters in the region and within the Somali parliament, and comes amid high tension in the Somali capital, where lawmakers are threatening to impeach President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed.
Meanwhile, security was tight Thursday in Mogadishu as Eritrea's President Isaias Afwerki made his first visit to the Somali capital and met with the Somali president. Relations between Eritrea and Somalia have warmed since Eritrea made peace with longtime rival Ethiopia earlier this year.
Mukhtar Atoosh contributed to this story in Baidoa, Somalia