updated 3/25/2009 6:17:34 PM ET 2009-03-25T22:17:34

Hundreds of Somalis demonstrated against Islamist fighters Wednesday after they imposed a ban on a popular narcotic leaf in a southwestern town, witnesses said.

The protest is the latest setback for the group, whose leaders the U.S. State Department say have al-Qaida links.

One person was wounded during the protest in Baidoa, the country's former parliamentary seat, after the Islamist al-Shabab fighters fired in the air to disperse protesters, witness Abdirahman Abdullahi said.

Al-Shabab's head of security in Baidoa, Sheik Hassan Deerow, said several protesters had been jailed. Resident Mukhtar Adaw said more than 50 people had been detained, among them many women and children.

The protest began after the hardline al-Shabab militia banned khat, Baidoa resident Hassan Eden said.

Khat, also spelled qat, leaves produce a mild narcotic buzz when chewed and are a central part of traditional Somali social life. Many Somali women make a living selling the green leaves, and Somali men enjoy chewing them with friends.

Ravages of war
Al-Shabab controls large chunks of southern Somalia and imposes a harsh brand of Islam, while battling government troops and African Union peacekeepers.

Al-Shabab has tried to ban khat before with little success. Many Somalis, who traditionally follow a more moderate form of Islam, reject the group's ideology but at the same time welcome any attempt to bring order to their chaotic, war-ravaged country.

This year, rival militias promoting more moderate forms of Islam have won back some territory al-Shabab seized last year.

Al-Shabab's fight against the shaky U.N.-backed government was weakened when parliament appointed a former Islamist fighter as president earlier this year.

January's withdrawal of Ethiopian troops allied to the government, although long a demand of al-Shabab, removed one of its most powerful recruiting tools. It has since refocused its calls for a nationalist and religious war on African Union peacekeepers.

The country has not had a functioning government since clan-based militias overthrew a socialist dictator in 1991 and then turned on each other.

More on: khat

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