Al-Shabab militants in the south-central Somali town of Baidoa have beheaded seven people in what is believed to the largest mass execution carried out in Somalia by the al-Qaida-linked group since 2006.
According to relatives of the victims, the charges against the seven Somalis ranged from being Christians to spying for the Transitional Federal Government. They say none of the people were tried before the executions were carried out on Friday.
The executions have shocked the people of Baidoa, which was once the base of Somalia's transitional parliament. The town fell to al-Shabab insurgents in January, following the pull-out of Ethiopian troops from Somalia.
Al-Shabab follows the ultra-conservative Wahabi tenet of Islam and its fighters have imposed strict Islamic laws in areas they control. They have forced women to cover their faces, segregated men and women in public places, and have banned music and all forms of entertainment.
They have also punished thieves by cutting off limbs and have stoned women accused of adultery. Beheadings have been relatively rare, but their numbers have been increasing. Last month, al-Shabab beheaded three people in the same region.
On Friday, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, said carrying out such punishments without due process violated Somali and international laws and could be considered as war crimes.
Al-Shabab and an allied opposition group called Hisbul Islam already control large areas of southern Somalia and parts of the capital Mogadishu. In a bid to topple the U.N.-backed government, the insurgents launched an attack on government forces in early May. Two months of fighting in Mogadishu has killed hundreds of people and uprooted more than 200,000 others from their homes.
The Somali government says it needs international help to ensure the government does not collapse. Earlier this week, Somali Prime Minister Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke told local reporters that al-Shabab is a transnational jihadist group, determined to wipe Somalia off the map.
Mr. Sharmarke says al-Shabab is not fighting to establish a government for the Somali people, but is trying to replace the Somali flag with the flag of extremism.
The al-Shabab-led insurgency has attracted hundreds of foreign fighters to Somalia in recent months. Many of them have been seen fighting alongside al-Shabab in Mogadishu streets. Al-Shabab's ranks are also believed to be growing from new recruits trained at various camps set up by al-Shabab in southern Somalia.
Western intelligence officials believe al-Shabab is now a proxy army for the al-Qaida terrorist organization and pose a serious threat to the security of the region and to the Western world.
The United States recently acknowledged sending weapons to Somalia and has pledged more military assistance to the Somali government, but Washington says it will not send troops.