The former number two leader of Somalia’s al-Shabab extremists, who is now a candidate in a regional election, was arrested Thursday prompting violent protests in which four people were killed, officials said.
Sheikh Mukhtar Robow, previously al-Shabab’s spokesman, was arrested by Ethiopian troops that are part of the African Union forces supporting the Somali government, Nur Ahmed, an electoral official in Somalia’s Southwest state, told The Associated Press.
Robow was flown from Baidoa to Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, said a Somali intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
Robow defected last year from al-Shabab, Africa’s deadliest extremist group, last year and is now running to be regional president of Southwest state in elections scheduled for Dec. 19.
The Ethiopian soldiers arrested Robow at the regional president’s residence in Baidoa, according to witnesses. The regional candidates had been summoned for a meeting at the residence. Somali police accompanied Ethiopian soldiers in the arrest, said officials.
Gunfire erupted in Baidoa as Robow’s supporters protested his arrest. Armed militias thought to be linked to Robow were seen on streets in the town, said police Col. Ahmed Abdi.
At least four people were killed, including an Ethiopian soldier, in the clashes between troops and armed men thought to be Robow’s supporters, said Abdi. The Ethiopian army deployed tanks and hundreds of soldiers in Baidoa following the fighting, he said.
The lanky, bearded Robow, last year had a $5 million bounty on his head, offered by the U.S. government but the reward was dropped before he defected from al-Shabab. Although he is blamed for directing much of the rebels’ violence, he is generally popular in the Southwest region.
Robow’s controversial campaign exposed the rift between Somalia’s federal government based in Mogadishu and the regional government.
Worried about Robow’s popularity, the federal government sent at least one high-level official to try to persuade him to step aside.
“I was asked to relinquish my candidacy but I’m telling you that … I will be running for president,” Robow told supporters in October. “With the help of God, we will win and peace will win.”
The U.S. military’s Africa command said it is aware of the reports of Robow’s arrest.
The arrest was criticized by Rashid Abdi, of the International Crisis Group.
“A thoroughly daft move on part of the Ethiopians,” said Abdi in a tweet. “They have now made him a martyr; increased his popularity even more.”