WASHINGTON / PUNTLAND, SOMALIA - The Somali government has asked the United States to provide "immediate military assistance" because it says al-Shabab militants are plotting to supply uranium to Iran.
In a letter to U.S. Ambassador to Somalia Stephen Schwartz, Somali Foreign Minister Yusuf Garaad Omar says the militant group has captured "critical surface exposed uranium deposits" in the central Somali region of Galmudug and intend to transport the uranium to Iran.
The letter says the issue presents a problem for the larger global community and will not be constrained within the borders of Somalia.
The authenticity of the letter was confirmed to VOA's Somali service by the Somali ambassador to the U.S., Ahmed Isse Awad.
The letter says Somalia is facing a "reconstituted" al-Shabab that is seizing territory in central Somalia. It also says the group is linking up with Islamic State militants in the country.
In the letter, the foreign minister says "only the United States has the capacity to identify and smash al-Shabab elements operating within our country."
"The time for surgical strikes and limited engagement has passed, as Somalia's problems have metastasized into the world's problems. Every day that passes without intervention provides America's enemies with additional material for nuclear weapons," Omar writes.
Expert doubts claims
The copy of the letter obtained by VOA offers no proof for Omar's assertions, though it refers to an intelligence brief sent to Schwartz.
Abdirashid Khalif Hashi, a former government minister and current director of the Heritage Institute for Policy Studies, a think tank in Mogadishu, said he initially thought the letter was fake. But even with the government's confirmation, Hashi said he had "several issues" with the letter.
"First of all, it was written by a minister to an ambassador; he should have sent it to his [U.S.] counterpart," he told VOA. "They [the government] have also linked al-Shabab with Daesh, and they can't be linked up."
Daesh is a derogatory term for the Islamic State militant group. Al-Shabab and pro-IS militants in Somalia have been fighting since 2015. The government's assertion the groups have forged ties is unsupported by the situation on the ground, where al-Shabab has executed many pro-IS militants.
Asked about the claim that Iran is seeking uranium in Somalia, Hashi said it's possible because Somalia's borders are mostly unprotected.
"This is a collapsed state. ... If Iran needed something from Somalia, it's possible that they believe they can get it because this is an open country," he said.
But Hashi said the letter might be intended to draw additional military support from Washington more than anything else.
"The aim of the letter is to get sympathy from the U.S. and to change its policy toward Somalia," Hashi said. "But I don't think the language written in the letter is going to change the U.S."
The U.S. has a small number of military advisers helping and training special forces in Somalia. Since 2011, the U.S. also has carried out numerous airstrikes against al-Shabab, killing a number of top commanders.
The latest suspected U.S. strike took place Friday. Security sources told VOA Somali a strike targeted Abdirahman Hudeyfi, a senior al-Shabab commander in Middle Juba region.
Intelligence sources told VOA Somali that Hudeyfi was once al-Shabab's governor for the region. The U.S. military has yet to comment on the reported attack.
Explosions in Puntland
At least nine people, including five soldiers, were killed and more than 30 others were injured in two explosions at a market in Af-Urur, a village in the semiautonomous Puntland region.
The first explosion occurred in a store where traders sell khat, a green narcotic leaf widely chewed in Somalia. Moments later, a second blast was reported in the same area as people were gathering to evacuate the wounded.
Witnesses told a VOA Somali reporter that three people died at the scene while four others died on their way to a hospital. Two more died in the hospital in Armo village, 30 kilometers north of Af-Urur.
Al-Shabab claimed responsibility for the Friday explosions.
In June, al-Shabab militants attacked a military base in Af-Urur, killing 50 Puntland regional soldiers and three senior military officers.
Falastine Iman and Fadumo Yasin Jama contributed to this report.