MOGADISHU: Masked gunmen killed seven Pakistani preachers at a mosque in Somalia’s Puntland region on Wednesday, residents and local officials said.
Residents said the shooting took place after early morning prayers at the mosque in Galkayo town and targeted a group of 25 mostly Pakistanis who had arrived in the semi-autonomous northern region on Tuesday.
‘Six Pakistanis died on the spot while another Pakistani died in hospital. These men are Islamist preachers from Karachi,’ Galkayo chairman Hussein Abdullahi said by telephone.
‘Puntland forces have now surrounded the area around the mosque to protect the other sheikhs.’
The preachers were dragged out of the mosque and shot dead, said a police official.
Authorities had launched a manhunt for the killers, he added. It was unclear why the men were targeted.
Puntland is a base for pirates targeting the Gulf of Aden, but it has been more peaceful than the rest of the failed Horn of Africa state, which Western security agencies say is a haven for militants plotting attacks in the region and beyond.
A Pakistani foreign ministry spokesman said his government had seen the reports from Galkayo, but could not comment until it had more details from its diplomats in east Africa.
A spokesman for the Pakistani embassy in neighbouring Kenya said officials were still trying to determine the total number of casualties in the attack. ‘I can confirm we are getting reports of Pakistanis killed in Galkayo, in Puntland,’ the spokesman said.
‘But we are still investigating. I cannot confirm exactly what happened. Yes this incident has taken place but we are not sure of the total number of casualties.’
Residents said Wednesday’s attack might have been driven by suspicion that the preachers were linked to Al Qaeda.
Local media, however, said the mosque where they were staying often hosted members of the Tablighi Jamaat, a religious movement founded in India in 1926 that keeps a low public profile and says it does not get involved in politics.
A spokesman for Al Shabaab militant group denied involvement in the killing of religious scholars.—Agencies