Shabab militia patrol Bakara Market in Mogadishu (Oct 2009 file photo)
Shabab militia patrol Bakara Market in Mogadishu (Oct 2009 file photo)

Security forces in Somalia's northern semi-autonomous region of Puntland say three people have been arrested in connection with the fatal shooting of a judge late Wednesday in the commercial port town of Bosasso.   The assassination may be linked to a Puntland cell of al-Shabab, a militant group linked with al-Qaida.

According to witnesses, two masked gunmen ambushed the judge, Sheik Mohamed Abdi Aware, as he left a mosque.  Aware died after being shot several times in the head and chest. 

In a separate incident in the regional capital Garowe, unknown gunmen killed a local member of parliament, Ibrahim Elmi Warsame, as he headed home from his office.  

Security forces have not released any details about the three men being held in connection with the shooting of the judge in Bosassao. 

In a radio address, Puntland President Abdirahman Mohamed Farole said the police and military are investigating both incidents and the region has been put on high alert.

Mr. Farole says Puntland is continuing to suffer from insecurity perpetrated by people opposed to peace.  

Puntland is home to notorious pirate groups, counterfeiters, as well as human traffickers, who smuggle thousands of people from the region to Yemen each year.  Residents in Bosasso say Judge Aware had enemies because he had put many of the lawbreakers in jail.

Last week, the judge sentenced four men, convicted of being members of al-Shabab, to 15 years in prison, fueling belief among the locals the assassination was carried out by the militant group in revenge.  Al-Shabab is listed as a terrorist organization by the United States and Australia for being a proxy for al-Qaida in Somalia.

Al-Shabab militants had mainly operated in southern and central Somalia, concentrating their efforts in establishing ultra-conservative Islamic administrations in key towns and battling to expand their territory to include the capital Mogadishu. 

Somali sources tell VOA that al-Shabab is beginning to mobilize in Puntland, the northeastern region of Somalia that had been relatively stable compared to the south since the region formed its own administration in 1998.  

The Puntland cell is believed to be under the command of the third senior al-Shabab leader in the organization and is based in the Bari region, near the border of Sanaag claimed by both Puntland and the neighboring breakaway republic of Somaliland.

Hundreds of foreign fighters are also believed to be among the ranks of al-Shabab, assisting in training of recruits and battling alongside al-Shabab fighters.  One of al-Qaida's main operatives in east Africa, Kenyan-born Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, was killed in September in southern Somalia by U.S. Special Forces while he rode in a convoy of al-Shabab fighters.  

Al-Shabab carried out its largest attack to date in Somaliland and Puntland last October, carrying out multiple near-simultaneous suicide bombings in Bosasso and in the Somaliland capital Hargeisa.  The bombings killed at least 30 people.