BAIDOA, Somalia – Police fired into the air and arrested several people demonstrating Friday in support of an Islamic group that is vying for authority in Somalia and against calls for the deployment of peacekeepers here.
Around 100 people had gathered in Baidoa, the seat of the almost powerless transitional government that has appealed for help from foreign peacekeepers. Six people were arrested.
Several large demonstrations have been staged in the capital, Mogadishu, by Islamic leaders who have challenged the government and who oppose foreign peacekeepers. But this was the first in the government's stronghold of Baidoa, 150 miles from the capital.
"We had heard of the demonstration and we immediately sent troops to pre-empt it," said Mohammud Adan Barbar, governor of Baidoa.
On Wednesday, the African Union endorsed an ambitious plan to deploy 3,500 peacekeepers by October. The mission is expected to cost $34 million a month.
The Islamic fighters who seized the capital and much of southern Somalia in June have imposed strict religious rule in their territory. Somalia's official government exercises little authority, while the Islamic group is credited with bringing a semblance of order after years of anarchy. But some of the Islamic leaders have been linked to Al Qaeda and there are fears of an emerging, Taliban-style regime.
Earlier Friday, militiamen allied to Somalia's government took up defensive positions in the strategic port town of Kismayo after a key leader in the rival Islamic group arrived for talks on the town's future.
Mohamed Roble Jumale, a member of the Juba Valley Alliance that controls Kismayo and who also helped the Islamic courts defeat U.S.-backed warlords in Mogadishu, drove into Kismayo late Thursday with a handful of bodyguards and was expected to begin talks with other alliance leaders on Friday.
Fears of fighting in Kismayo, Somalia's third city, have sparked an exodus to neighboring Kenya with 300 people, mainly women and children, arriving each day, the U.N.'s refugee agency said Friday.
"People expect a war," said Aden Yare, who lives in the city located 260 miles southwest of the capital, Mogadishu.
Somalis also are fleeing the capital and Baidoa to avoid recruitment by warlords or the Islamic group, and because of fears of fighting, the refugee agency said. Kenya already has received 22,000 Somali refugees since the beginning of the year.
On Friday in Brussels, Belgium, the European Union offered its support to talks between Somalia's weak government and the Islamic group.
The EU also cautioned against foreign interference in Somalia, in an apparent message to Ethiopia and Eritrea, who have both been accused of sending troops into the territory of their unstable neighbor. Both countries have denied sending troops to Somalia.
Ethiopia has threatened to "crush" the Islamic fighters if they seek to overthrow the Somali government and has reportedly sent troops to three Somali towns. The Somali government has accused Ethiopia's regional rival Eritrea of sending in troops at the invitation of the Islamic group.