MOGADISHU Unidentified gunmen fired on worshippers at mosques in Somalia's self-proclaimed state of Puntland, killing at least six people and wounding dozens, residents and security officials said Sunday.
Residents believe the attacks targeted mosques run by al Qaeda-linked al Shabaab rebels, blamed for a roadside bombing a few hours before that killed a prominent cleric who was also a senior Puntland government official.
The mosque attacks Saturday evening and Sunday morning in Galkayo killed a total of six people, prompting local authorities to order all mosques in the town to close temporarily for fear of further attacks.
Somalia has been torn by civil war since 1991, and the government of President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed controls only small pockets of the rubble-strewn capital Mogadishu in the south.
Puntland has been relatively peaceful compared with the rest of the Horn of Africa country but violence and instability have increased of late. The northern region is also a major base for pirates causing havoc to shipping off the Horn of Africa.
"Tension is very high and now the terrorists are regrouping for battle. I am afraid all mosques will be closed for fear of fighting and explosions," cleric Sheikh Hussein told Reuters.
"It appears to be a declaration of religious war," Mohamed Ali Yusuf, a Puntland security official, told Reuters.
"We have seized several suspects. We are conducting investigations and our forces are patrolling in the town."
Earlier Saturday, a prominent moderate Sufi cleric who was a senior official in Puntland's justice and religion ministry was killed in the city after a remote controlled bomb exploded near his car, hours before the first mosque attack.
"I have no doubt that al Shabaab is responsible for the assassination of the cleric because he was lobbying to eliminate them from the region," Sheikh Osman Moalim, a cleric, told Reuters from Galkayo.
Al Shabaab is waging a four-year-old insurgency to topple the Western-backed Somali government.
Somalia has been mired in conflict and awash with weapons since the downfall of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre 20 years ago. It has become a haven for foreign jihadists bent on striking the region's main economies, security experts say.
(Writing by James Macharia; editing by Mark Heinrich)