msnbc.com news services
updated 7/28/2006 10:19:14 AM ET 2006-07-28T14:19:14

Hundreds of people rioted Friday near the headquarters of Somalia’s virtually powerless government after a Cabinet minister was fatally shot outside a mosque in what a cabinet colleague called a “terrorist action.”

People began streaming into the streets and setting fires just hours after the killing of Abdallah Isaaq Deerow, Somalia’s minister for constitutional and federal affairs. The attack was sure to heighten tensions in the violence-plagued Horn of Africa nation which many fear is sliding towards war.

An unidentified gunman shot Deerow, then escaped, according to an Associated Press reporter at the scene.

“So far we do not know who did it. They shot him as he was leaving the mosque then ran off. Police are chasing the gunmen,” Information Minister Mohamed Abdi Hayr told Reuters from Baidoa, seat of the fragile interim Somali government. “It looks like an organized assassination.”

The shooting was the second this week of a lawmaker in Baidoa, the only town controlled by the fragile administration. Mohammed Ibrahim Mohammed, chairman of the parliamentary committee for constitutional affairs, was wounded Wednesday night. Police were investigating both shootings.

A Baidoa hospital nurse said Isaq, a former schoolteacher, came in with four bullet wounds in the heart and chest.

“The doctors tried to check him but he was already dead,” she told Reuters by telephone.

There was no immediate reaction from the Islamists.

The government, which has no military, has watched helplessly in recent months as Islamic militants took over much of the country. On Thursday, 18 top ministers resigned, saying the government has failed to bring peace to this chaotic African nation. Deerow was not among those who resigned.

Eritrea arming militants?
Also Friday, Islamic fighters closed roads around the capital's airport and chased away onlookers while a plane was unloaded. A similar aircraft delivered goods Wednesday, and officials from the government accused Eritrea of sending arms to the militants on that flight.

Islamic officials and Eritrea both denied the accusation. Eritrea and Ethiopia have been accused of supporting opposite sides in the Somali standoff, using the country as a battleground in their own rivalry.

The lawmakers who resigned Thursday said they were opposed to troops from neighboring Ethiopia who were sent here to protect the government from the Islamic group.

"We have seen that the government cannot carry out national reconciliation and development," said the resignation letter issued Thursday by 18 key ministers in the 102-member Cabinet.

Prime Minister Mohammed Ali Gedi accused the former Cabinet ministers of trying to bring down his government, but said it would not be affected.

The Islamic militants' increasing power has prompted grave concerns in the United States, which accuses the group of harboring al-Qaida leaders responsible for deadly 1998 bombings at the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The Islamic group's imposition of strict religious courts also has raised fears of an emerging Taliban-style regime.

Confusion, tension
Shocked diplomats and analysts said the killing could have been by an Islamist extremist or linked to internal divisions within the government. A no confidence motion on Prime Minister Ali Gedi is due to be debated in parliament on Saturday.

“The situation is so confused and tense in Baidoa, it looks like someone wanted to deepen this,” a Western diplomat in Nairobi said.

Omar Jamal, a U.S.-based Somali exile who heads an advocacy group, said sources in Baidoa told him militants were to blame.

“The only organizations that can carry out such well-thought out plans in Somalia now are organizations affiliated to al-Qaida,” he said.

In Mogadishu, another mysterious plane landed on Friday, fuelling suspicions the Islamists were receiving weapon deliveries. Their militia blocked roads near the airport as unidentified cargo was unloaded.

‘The Islamists are arming themselves’
Residents said several trucks came to collect the delivery from the airport. “The Islamists are arming themselves and now we have to wait for fighting,” said resident Abdullahi Ali.

On Wednesday, a cargo plane delivered goods an Islamist aide said were sewing machines. But the government pointed the finger at Eritrea, which it said was secretly arming the Islamists.

In what government sources say were moves to draw the Islamists into peace talks and avert war, 18 ministers and other top officials quit the interim government on Thursday and lawmakers sought to oust the prime minister.

Government officials and analysts say offering the prime minister’s job and some other ministerial posts to the Islamists in a power-sharing pact could be the only way to secure peace.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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