At least five Muslim preachers from Pakistan have been shot to death outside a mosque in Somalia's semi-autonomous region of Puntland. There are reports that two more may have died in a hospital from their wounds. The motive behind the shootings is not clear.
The violence occurred early Wednesday outside the Tawfiq mosque in the Somali town of Galkayo. According to local officials, masked gunmen forced the seven preachers out of the mosque after morning prayers and opened fire, killing at least five of them on the spot.
Puntland officials subsequently launched a house-to-house search for the gunmen. There has been no claim of responsibility.
The preachers were part of a group of about 25 men, mostly Pakistanis, who arrived Tuesday in Galkayo from the southern Pakistani city of Karachi. They are thought to be missionaries from an international Islamic sect called Tabliq.
Tabliq has many branches around the world and in some parts, the sect is considered little more than an Islamic religious study group. But in other parts of the world, such as Pakistan, there have been charges the organization harbors militant extremists.
Residents in Galkayo say they do not know who murdered the preachers. But they say the gunmen may have been motivated by their belief that the preachers had ties with terrorist groups such as al-Qaida.
An al-Qaida-linked Somali group called al-Shabab is currently fighting to topple the central government in Mogadishu. The militant group, which has vowed to unite all of Somalia under strict Islamic rule, already controls much of southern Somalia and its rise to power has prompted deep concern among Puntland authorities and secular Somalis. Islamic militants are believed to have carried out the assassination of Puntland's minister of information last week in Galkayo.
International Crisis Group's Horn of Africa Project Director Ernst Jan Hogendoorn says the killing of the Pakistani preachers is just one more sign that the people in Puntland are becoming just as divided and polarized as Somalis in the south.
"One of the difficulties is that Puntland security services have clamped down very hard on Islamist elements in the region. And that has created a lot of resentment among ordinary people in Puntland. But it has also essentially forced them underground and they have been able to build what we understand to be a very robust network of contacts that span the entire region and into south and central Somalia," he said.
The International Crisis Group released a new report on Puntland, arguing that poor governance and lack of leadership has pushed the region toward rising instability and political tension in the past three years.
The report says Puntland, which had been relatively peaceful since its creation in 1998, is now in dire straits, suffering from the effects of out-of-control piracy, rampant corruption, and grinding poverty. The Brussels-based group says unless major reforms are enacted, Puntland could disintegrate or possibly be overthrown by an underground militant Islamist movement.