MOGADISHU, Somalia – Somalia's government has launched a new disarmament campaign that has netted some 500 guns and sparked gun battles in a capital that is awash with weapons, said officials who want to get rid of the weapons before they fall into the hands of al-Qaeda-linked fighters
Gun markets have a long history in Mogadishu, a city once ruled by clan warlords. Disarmament campaigns, run both by weak Somali governments and by the U.S. military in the early 1990s, have had limited success. But the government is trying again.
Troops raided a military official's home and discovered guns that authorities said were going to be sold to al-Shabab rebels. The official was arrested after a heavy firefight, said Mohamed Yusuf, the spokesman for Somalia's national security ministry. Security forces also raided a garage belonging to the former anti-U.S. warlord Osman Atto, who died last year, seizing rocket-propelled grenades and bombs, Yusuf said.
Raids over the last week have netted some 500 guns and hundreds of boxes of ammunition, he said.
Two more night raids followed against a former U.S.-backed anti-Islamist warlord, Abdi Nurre Siad, who escaped during a firefight at his home. Troops also raided a home belonging to a Somali member of parliament who is the son of a former warlord. No weapons were found, Yusuf said.
"So far we have made good progress in the disarmament plan," said Yusuf. "This plan is to ensure the stability of Mogadishu."
One intelligence official was killed during the operations, according to Yusuf.
But even as officials seek to remove weapons, others still come into the Horn of Africa country.
The Small Arms Survey, a research project based in Switzerland, says world governments in recent years have covertly delivered "tens of thousands of small arms and light weapons to various armed groups in Somalia despite a long-standing U.N. arms embargo." The group said those weapons range from assault rifles to third-generation SA-18 MANPADS, a portable air defense system.
Somali civilians own more than 500,000 guns, the group estimates.
During the early 1990s, U.S. Marines fighting warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid tried to carry out a disarmament campaign. It had only limited success. One challenge the government faces is locating buried weapons. Mogadishu gun runners have long buried their caches to avoid detection.
Some Somalis believe the campaign is a political witch hunt aimed at weeding out rivals of the country's leadership as the country gears up for a proposed 2016 national election. Whether that planned election happens will depend on the state of security in the country.
Dahir Amin Jesow, a Somali legislator who heads a security committee in the parliament, said the disarmament campaign should be done according to the law. A proposed disarmament law has been approved by the government's cabinet but hasn't yet been voted on by parliament.
"Disarmament is a good solution. However, negotiations and even buying the weapons from its owners would help to avoid certain grievances," he said.